Murder in Myanmar

Iyan Nurmansyah, Sussex, UK (published in The Jakarta Post 28/9/07)

It is very distressing to see that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) does not seem to be doing much in dealing with the crisis in Myanmar.

Just imagine if ASEAN was the European Union (EU), and Myanmar one of its members. I believe that the other member countries would have reacted hysterically.

For example, the EU put pressure on the Slovakian government over their attitude towards the Romany Gypsies minority group. When Slovakia decided to join this prestigious club, Bratislava had to agree with the values shared by all members of the institution. One of those values is to provide equal rights for minority groups.

Another recent example is the furor caused by the homophobic comments made by Polish senior officials, which has forced the European Parliament to send a fact-finding mission to Poland.

The point is, whether one agrees or disagrees with homosexuality, once Warsaw signed up to become part of this European "brotherhood" club, all Polish public officials had to respect the club's credo, and "behave" appropriately, especially when in the public eye.

Inciting hatred based on sexual orientation by public officials of a new member country is not what the EU bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg want to hear.

Thus, it is extremely bizarre to see the policy makers in Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Manila almost turning a blind eye to the situation in Myanmar, which has caused a global uproar elsewhere. To speak frankly, this makes us wonder what kind of values the ASEAN members share.

It has been 10 years since Myanmar joined ASEAN, and we have all witnessed the antics of the ruling generals reacting to the pro-democracy movements. This is not an era when appalling facts can be hidden from the outside world. The revolution in technology has enabled us to see what is going on even in the most remote part of this planet.

Of course there are arguments the decision made by senior ASEAN members not to take decisive action is due to the significance of Myanmar in terms of natural resources, such as gas and oil. Being too "noisy" on Myanmar's internal affairs would possibly alienate Myanmar from the ASEAN community, and even possibly draw Myanmar closer to emerging powers such as China.

Should that happen, the loser would probably be ASEAN, not Myanmar. Bluntly, we can say ASEAN needs Myanmar more than Myanmar needs ASEAN.

There is much evidence to show the relationship between China and Myanmar is getting stronger. For example, the Military Government of Myanmar recently decided to sell its natural gas to PetroChina (Source: Gideon Lundholm, Asia Times Online). Emerging world powers like China and India definitely need energy for economic development, and Myanmar has the resources these two countries need.

Moreover, the trade between China and Myanmar keeps increasing. Data according to the Chinese government statistics as presented by David Fullbrook for the Asia Times Online shows in 2004, the trade between China and Myanmar had increased to US$1.2 billion, from only $313.7 million in 1989.

It seems other ASEAN members use facts like these as a reason to deal with the issue of Myanmar in an extremely "careful" fashion. The way senior ASEAN members deal with the Myanmar government fits an old idiom: "let sleeping dogs lie". Just go easy with Myanmar, or we might cause a problem, which would be bad for us.

What we forget is that some ASEAN member countries have had a long and remarkable struggle on the path towards democracy. As Indonesians, even though we are still learning how to be a properly democratic country, we are proud that in 1998 the supporters of democracy successfully abolished the Soeharto regime.

The history of 1986 People Power in the Philippines is a further example of how another ASEAN member country has chosen to say no to injustice and oppression. Therefore, the value of democracy and freedom is not something, which is alien to us anymore.

In fact, it should be the backbone of our ASEAN community. By not taking a decisive action in dealing with Myanmar, we have denied the rights of the Myanmarese to freedom, more importantly we have also undermined the prestige of ASEAN and have lowered the standards of our regional institution.

We might face the risk of economic loss by upsetting the Myanmar government, however, human lives and freedom are certainly more precious than money.

The writer holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from the University of Sussex. He can be reached at RN28@sussex.ac.uk.



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