April 11, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

ASEAN Chairmanship and President U Thein Sein’s Government

16 November 2011: Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet in Bali, Indonesia on November 17-19. One of the most important items on the agenda will be whether Burma should chair ASEAN in 2014. Before the ASEAN leaders make a historic decision which could impact ASEAN members’ relationships with their international partners, they should strongly consider whether President U Thein Sein’s government represents ASEAN’s unique values. As a candidate for ASEAN Chairmanship, Burma must fulfil the principles embodied in ASEAN’s charter, including acceleration of economic growth, social progress, and cultural development; the promotion of regional peace and stability; and a respect for justice and the rule of law. Therefore, understanding the values represented by the ASEAN Chairmanship, President U Then Sein’s government must take the following actions immediately and unconditionally to demonstrate to the world that his government is fully qualified for ASEAN leadership.

First, President U Thein Sein’s government should declare a nationwide ceasefire and enter political dialogues with members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which is comprised of the Karen National Union (KNU), the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Chin National Front (CNF), the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA). In response to Executive Order 8/22 issued by President U Thein Sein’s government, the Chairman of the UNFC wrote a letter to President U Thein Sein and expressed their willingness to resolve Burma’s conflicts peacefully. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD) also issued an open letter to President U Thein Sein and stated her willingness to facilitate the peace process between ethnic minorities and the central government.

There are many compelling reasons why President U Thein Sein’s government should declare a nationwide ceasefire and enter into political dialogue with ethnic minorities. A six-decade long civil war in Burma has yielded one half-million refugees, thousands of internally displaced persons, thousands of deaths, both among ethnic minorities and among the Burmese military, and innumerable human rights violations. Therefore, if President U Thein Sein’s government cannot immediately and unconditionally declare a nationwide ceasefire, his government should not be chairing a bloc which is committed to maintaining peace, stability, and development among ASEAN members.

Second, releasing prisoners of conscience incarcerated by the military junta is not only morally imperative, but also constitutionally required of President U Thein Sein’s government. His government should demonstrate to ASEAN and to the international community that his constitutionally formed quasi-civilian government is not only different from the previous military junta, but also that it respects the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Myanmar/Burma, as well as the rights that are protected under international law as required by treaties to which Burma has acceded. As a member of the United Nations, one that has voted for adoption and declaration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), President U Thein Sein’s government should strictly observe the UDHR.

Finally, as the United States Secretary of State said recently, “greater transparency regarding Burma’s relations with North Korea” is very important, in order to promote one of the core principles of ASEAN—the promotion of regional peace and stability. As long as the relationship between North Korea and Burma remains cloaked in ambiguity, ASEAN will fail to promote regional peace and stability.

As a member of ASEAN, Burma has a right to lead ASEAN, but such right should not be exercised without consideration of moral and political realities. As a native of Burma, I profoundly support Burma as it seeks to chair ASEAN in 2014. However, for Burma to legitimately assume the leadership, it must declare a unilateral and unconditional ceasefire, release political prisoners, and clarify its secret relationship with North Korea.

Burma has led the United Nations in the past and I have confidence that it will be able to lead the ASEAN in the future. However, in order to become a leader of ASEAN, it must immediately meet its obligations to its own citizens and to the international community. These obligations have been reiterated by ASEAN, the EU, and the US as prerequisites for Burma to chair ASEAN in 2014.

Dr. Salai Ngun Cung Lian

The author is a Post-doctoral Appointee at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Assistant Director of Center for Constitutional Democracy.

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