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UN HUMAN RIGHTS BRIEFING - ALTSEAN-
- Subject: UN HUMAN RIGHTS BRIEFING - ALTSEAN-
- From: darnott@xxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Tue, 08 Apr 1997 15:51:00
Subject: UN HUMAN RIGHTS BRIEFING - ALTSEAN-BURMA PAPER
"CONSTRUCTIVE ENGAGEMENT" - AN ALTERNATIVE VIEW
Presented by Debbie Stothard, Coordinator, ALTSEAN-BURMA
(Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma)
FOR THE BRIEFING ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN BURMA
UN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION, GENEVA
APRIL 8, 1997
That I am here to represent of a network of over 200 ASEAN-based
organisations and individuals is an indication of the growing concern and
indeed, outrage, at the apparent acceptance by our governments of the
deteriorating human rights situation in Burma.
For many years now, a significant number of citizens from this region have
opposed the policy adopted by member governments of the Association of
South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). This policy known as "constructive
engagement" has been opposed because it has proven to be the exact opposite
of its title.
Under the guise of "constructive engagement", ASEAN and its member states
have established their position as one of the few public allies of Burma's
military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc). The
rapid increase of business ventures involving organizations with links to
ASEAN governments would imply that our leaders seem to have mistaken
"constructive" for "construction". Perhaps we should be more honest and
acknowledge that "constructive engagement" does not exist, "business
In July, Burma's military regime gained observer status with ASEAN and was
assured that Slorc membership for ASEAN would be imminent. This, and other
developments indicate that the only party dictating the conditions of
"engagement" are the Slorc. "Constructive engagement" has helped worsen the
crisis in Burma and from the behavior of some governments in this region,
brought about a "Slorcisation" of ASEAN.
Thus, the claims and pronouncements made by the proponents of "constructive
engagement" are sounding increasingly hollow:
MYTH # 1: "CONSTRUCTIVE ENGAGEMENT" HAS WORKED TO OPEN UP THE COUNTRY
"Constructive engagement" has only helped the Slorc's campaign project to
indiscriminately exploit the country's resources in the same way it has
attacked the peoples of Burma. It has helped in the creation of jobs which
pay wages in the way of displacement, misery, death and fear.
The opening up of Burma's economy has not improved the well-being of the
majority of its citizens. Hunger and deprivation continues to exist on a
Amnesty International reported that 1996 has been the worse year on record
for human rights abuses in Burma. Detentions, arrests, and violence by the
Slorc has escalated. The Slorc seem to have been encouraged by their closer
relationship with ASEAN to increase their oppression against the peoples of
The Slorc continues to divert most of the country's earnings to the military
and other structures which help the military survive.
As a result even the most basic needs of civilians are not being met. The
health system or lack of public health system continues to allow the
HIV/AIDS epidemic to continue unabated.
Literacy rates have plummeted - increasing numbers of children are being
deprived of their access to education.
The Slorc continues it attacks military, and otherwise, on supporters of
democracy and ethnic nationality groups. The current offensive against
Karen people is one of the worst in recent years, and the objective seems to
be to wipe out the Karen people, not just the Karen National Union.
ASEAN cannot claim ignorance of this ongoing crises, yet it has persisted in
giving tacit endorsement to the Slorc throughout this time.
If ASEAN member states were truly concerned with "opening up" the country,
they would be building hospitals and schools, instead of hotels and shopping
malls. They would not be involved in projects which result in forced
relocations and the use of slave labor.
Myth # 2: THOSE OBSTRUCTING THE ENTRY OF MYANMAR ARE FOREIGN NATIONS NOT IN
Absolutely not. The Alternative ASEAN Declaration on Burma, which was
finalized in October has been endorsed by 227 organisations and individuals
from existing ASEAN member states, including 16 Members of Parliament and
several former Members of Parliament.
The Alternative ASEAN Declaration on Burma opposes ASEAN membership for the
Slorc on the grounds that:
* The SLORC is not the legitimate government of that country
* ASEAN membership would provide the SLORC with a de facto license to
continue its attacks on the peoples of Burma, and
* The SLORC's activities are a direct contradiction to the aims and
objectives of ASEAN
The Alternative ASEAN Declaration on Burma also calls upon the member
governments of ASEAN and the international community to discard the policy
of "constructive engagement" which has brought untold injustice and
suffering upon the peoples of Burma.
It is extremely ironic that ASEAN activists are being lumped in with
"western governments" on the issue of Slorc's membership of ASEAN. It is a
poor reflection on ASEAN member states that they have failed took take the
initiative on Burma and instead resort to irrational and sometimes
contradictory statements to justify their lack of vision on this matter.
Myth # 3: IT IS AN INTERNAL AFFAIR
The usual line trundled out when all else fails. Sometimes used in tandem
with "it is up to the people to decide their fate". This is a pronouncement
verging on obscene, when it is obvious that the people of Burma DID decided
their fate in May 1990. Despite pressure and obstructions by the Slorc,
they voted overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy, led under
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time. The NLD won
82% of the seats and more significantly, over 90% of the vote - a fantasy
for most politicians in the free world.
What ASEAN is doing is in fact, meddling in the internal affairs of Burma,
by giving legitimacy to a clearly illegitimate regime, while relegating
human rights violations, which are the concern of all human beings, to the
confines of a "domestic" matter.
MYTH #4: IT IS IN THE INTERESTS OF REGIONAL SECURITY
It would appear that the threat to regional security and stability is the
Slorc itself. It has persisted in violating the borders of its neighbours,
and on several documented instances, crossed borders to pursue and attack
the security forces of another country. Slorc military have committed
murder, abductions, robberies, assault and property damage in neighboring
countries. It has shown a blatant disregard for the sovereignty and security.
The unabating HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma, helped by the Slorc's
irresponsibility in not providing adequate public health services
(awareness, prevention and care programs) not to forget its apparent direct
involvement in the production of drugs, poses a long-term security threat to
this region. The human and economic cost to Burma and the rest of the
region should be a cause for great concern to us all.
MYTH # 5: IF NOT FOR THE SLORC, BURMA WOULD COLLAPSE INTO ETHNIC CONFLICTS
A line often used by our leaders to introduce some humor into the debate.
The Slorc has the main responsibility for ethnic conflicts and tensions
taking place in Burma. It has been in its interest to perpetuate a
situation of "divide and rule".
The attacks on ethnic nationality groups, including the current offensive
against the Karen people, are not being perpetuated by the NLD. It is the
Slorc which is committing murder, rape, looting, abductions and torture
against ethnic groups. It is the Slorc which is denying ethnic people
access to their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
The hope for harmony lies in a government committed to justice, human rights
and democracy. This is why ethnic groups are increasingly making their
support for the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi known.
The Mae Tha Raw Hta Statement, made by ethnic nationality leaders at a
conference in January, calls for tripartite dialogue and expresses support
for the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The "stability" molded
by Slorc military force and coercion is one that will continually collapse
into armed conflict, death and refugees. The growing cooperation between
Suu Kyi and ethnic nationality leaders offers the only peaceful alternative
to this situation.
MYTH # 6: ASEAN IS A TRADING BLOC, THEREFORE "POLITICS" IS NOT ITS CONCERN
If this is the case, ASEAN would not have involved itself in efforts to
resolve the crisis in Cambodia or the conflict in Mindanao. The ASEAN
charter does make reference to the well-being of the people of the region,
as well as the matter of regional stability.
ASEAN does involve itself in matters "political" because it realizes that
trade and investment is dependent on political stability. What it needs to
recognize is that political stability is based on justice and respect for
human rights. Political stability is not a matter of forceful containment
MYTH #7: SLORC WILL BE POSITIVELY INFLUENCED THROUGH ITS EXPOSURE TO ASEAN
I reiterate that the growing links between Slorc and ASEAN have only brought
about a Slorcisation of ASEAN.
The strategies and rhetoric used in recent times by some member states of
ASEAN to suppress open dialogue in their own countries seem to echo those
used by the Slorc, i.e. such choice phrases as "crush destructive elements",
" puppets of Western masters", "Communist threat" and so on.
There have also been instances where government-organized groups have been
used to commit violence in the style of the Union Solidarity and Development
Association. In addition, government responses to the consequences of Slorc
aggression in their countries seem to imply an active cooperation to stamp
out political diversity.
MYTH # 8: BURMA IS A "WESTERN" AGENDA
This implies that Asians or "Easterners" somehow endorse murder,
assassination, rape, child abuse, slave labor, violence and war.
I do not view the so-called Western approach as being entirely altruistic.
However, frivolous and insulting statements such as those made by the
Singapore Foreign Minister about the "Asian way" do nothing to improve the
situation. The Foreign Minister concerned said at the ASEAN-EU Meeting in
Singapore that ASEAN would not seek that Slorc meet certain conditions prior
to gaining membership. He said that no such negotiations was needed -
according to the "Asian way", bride is expected to adjust to the groom after
marriage. This statement is both offensive to Asian women and misleading -
it is doubtful that Slorc sees itself as the stereotypical "blushing bride".
One of the characteristics of the so-called "Asian" way is the emphasis on
dialogue and negotiation. This is precisely what Burma's democracy movement
and the ethnic nationality groups are calling for, and this is what the
Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma supports. Why then, is ASEAN being an
obstacle to this urgently needed process?
MYTH # 9: SANCTIONS HURT THE WRONG PEOPLE
This was recently stated by Malaysian Prime Minister Dato Dr Mahathir
Mohamad. He asserted that sanctions did not work and hurt the wrong people.
Why then did Malaysia, under Dr Mahathir's leadership, stand so strong on
sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa? Why didn't Malaysia
"constructively engage" with Israel to support Palestinian self-determination?
MYTH # 10: "CONSTRUCTIVE ENGAGEMENT" IS THE ONLY ALTERNATIVE TO ISOLATIONISM
It has been in the interests of ASEAN member states to push the line of
"either/or". Many activists do not oppose "constructive engagement", if
only it did just that. Engaging and in this case, complicity with the
perpetrator of widespread violations and brutality, is far from
constructive. Neither is isolating the legitimately elected government of a
The term "constructive engagement" has to be discarded because it been so
abused and perverted from its original intent. ASEAN needs to have the
courage to replace it with a policy which will contribute to positive change
in Burma. ASEAN has so far, failed to use its influence gained through
engaging with the Slorc to effect any significant advances for the peoples
of Burma. It has instead gained international and domestic embarrassment
for its member states. One would conclude, from the rampant abuses by the
Slorc in the past year, that even that regime views "constructive
engagement" with contempt.
The first step in this process is to facilitate tripartite dialogue between
the Slorc, the democracy forces led by Suu Kyi, and the ethnic
nationalities. ASEAN should be taking the lead in providing strong
encouragement to the Slorc to agree to this process. The National
Convention is an inadequate arena for such dialogue, particularly since the
non-Slorc key players have been maneuvered out of the process. If ASEAN
fails to take this up, it is conceding international leadership on this
issue to its Northern (or Western) counterparts.
It is up to ASEAN's leadership to realize that unconditional support for the
Slorc motivated by investment interests will not just hurt the peoples of
Burma - the long-term costs will hurt us and our governments.
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