NG0s Push Myanmar to Remain on Path Towards Democracy

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - Myanmar has been entrusted by its fellow members in ASEAN to become the next ASEAN Chair in 2014 because the country had demonstrated some progress towards democracy.

"Every ASEAN member state supports Myanmar`s chairmanship bid," Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa said prior to the 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali, November 2011.

He said there were strong indications that Myanmar was now on the right track, given the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a number of political prisoners.

"But please don`t misunderstand. This support does not mean that development in Myanmar`s [democracy] is now 100 percent perfect because it isn`t. The process is still ongoing," Marty said.

Last December 2011, Marty visited Myanmar and held meetings with Myanmar officials as well as Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest in 2010, has confirmed that she would run for a seat in the country`s new Parliament in a by-election scheduled for April 2012.

And this month, it`s the turn of ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan to make a four-day visit to Myanmar starting February 20, 2012.

Surin was quoted as saying on the ASEAN Secretariat`s official website that that his visit would give him an opportunity to listen, learn and understand the aspirations of the government and the people of Myanmar and to identify how ASEAN can continue to play a role in the country`s new developments.

In his meeting with Myanmar Foreign Minister Maung Lwin, Suring discussed ways in which the Secretariat can assist Myanmar in the run-up towards 2014.

"Myanmar`s chair in 2014 will be a critical landmark in the history of ASEAN, as you will be the one responsible for wrapping up, and tying the loose ends, before handing over to Malaysia - the transit from your chair, which ends on 31 December 2014. There will be a lot resting on your shoulders," advised Dr Surin alluding to the ASEAN Community 2015.

When receiving Surin earlier this week, Myanmar President Thein Sein said Myanmar will "seriously consider" allowing observers from ASEAN and the ASEAN Secretariat during the April by-elections.

The two leaders agreed that such a move will boost transparency, which will add to the international goodwill that Myanmar had attracted so far, the ASEAN Secretariat said in a statement.

Surin`s visit to Myanmar is significant and therefore a number of NGOs in ASEAN member countries have seized the opportunity to write open letters to him.

The NGOs express their concern over human rights violations and urge the ASEAN Secretary General to encourage Myanmar to keep the reform moving forward.

"We write to you today on behalf of the undersigned ASEAN civil society organizations to share our lingering concerns about on-going human rights violations in Burma/Myanmar ahead of your mission to the country on 20 February 2012. We would like to request that you use this opportunity to urge President Thein Sein and his government to take meaningful steps towards a democratic transition, peace and national reconciliation as well as to put an end to gross human rights violations in the country," the ASEAN NGOs said in a letter dated February 16, 2012.

The NGOs acknowledged that the Thein Sein administration had made breakthroughs by releasing some 300 political prisoners and by changing the country`s general elections law to allow the National League for Democracy Party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, to participate in the upcoming elections. However, they consider the measures were not enough and the reform process must continue further.

The NGOs includes "Indonesian Solidarity for ASEAN Peoples" (SIAP), which is a coalition of several prominent Indonesian NGOs, such as Kontras, YLBHI and Imparsial.

SIAP Chairman Dedi Ali Ahmad in an open letter to Surin a copy of which was received by ANTARA on Tuesday (Feb 21) urged the ASEAN Secretary General to help push the Myanmar government to release all political prisoners.

"All political prisoners must be released immediately and unconditionally," Dedi said. The number of political prisoners in Myanmar is estimated at 700 people. He also urged conflicts involving Karen, Kachin and Shan ethnics, accused of being rebels, be solved peacefully.

"Through this open letter, we express solidarity and support for a solution to various human rights problems in Burma or Myanmar," Dedi said.

The NGOs and the other ASEAN member nations - Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, The Philippines, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos - definitely want to see the democratization process in Myanmar to continue because it would contribute to the stability and peace in the Southeast Asian region as well as the world. (*)