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Observers doubt Myanmar on ASEAN charter pledges

First Posted 19:37:00 07/21/2008

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SINGAPORE -- Military-ruled Myanmar on Monday formally ratified the ASEAN Charter but observers doubted the junta will live up to the document's ideals on democracy and human rights.

Foreign Minister Nyan Win presented his country's ratification during an annual meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In the charter, ASEAN members commit "to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms."

ASEAN has been widely criticized for its policy of "constructive engagement" regarding member Myanmar, which is under European Union and United States sanctions over its human rights record.

Myanmar was also severely criticized internationally for its delay in allowing foreign aid into the country after a May 2-3 cyclone that left 138,000 people dead or missing.

It subsequently belatedly allowed aid workers to enter under an arrangement with ASEAN and the United Nations.

"Myanmar's ratification of the charter today demonstrates our strong commitment to embrace the common values and aspirations of the people of ASEAN to build the ASEAN community, one that's together in partnership in a caring and sharing community," said the junta's foreign minister Nyan Win.

But Egoy Bans, a Filipino activist pushing for democratization in Myanmar, said he "does not believe that there is sincerity" by the junta to go through democratic change.

He said ASEAN must work toward "concrete reforms" inside Myanmar, as implied by the charter.

"I know it's sort of a challenge for ASEAN to really stand by its charter," said Bans, of the Free Burma Coalition group of independent democracy advocates.

Just seven days after the cyclone, Myanmar insisted on holding a referendum on a military-backed constitution. It said that despite the devastation, 98 percent of voters turned out for the ballot and more than 92 percent endorsed their constitution.

The opposition party of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, held under house arrest for most of the past 18 years, dismissed the referendum outcome as a "sham."

Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, noted there are differing definitions of democracy, good governance and human rights.

He said Myanmar knows that other ASEAN countries also have similar difficulties conforming to outside standards.

"They're not going to take the view that they have to change their approach to 'disciplined democracy'," he said of Myanmar.

Wilson, now a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, said that despite its pledge to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, the charter "doesn't have the same force or meaning... that in Western countries we would expect it to have."

The charter aims to give ASEAN a legal framework and sets out principles and rules for members.

It also transforms ASEAN, established in 1967, into a legal entity, a move that will give the group greater clout in international negotiations.

The charter resulted from a long and controversial drafting process that saw some of the strong recommendations from ASEAN elder statesmen watered down or dropped, including provisions on sanctions and expulsion.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the document will come into force on the 30th day after the 10th member ratifies.

Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines are the remaining members of the 10-nation ASEAN which must still ratify the document, although Manila has said it will not do so until Myanmar improves its human rights record.

But Surin said he was "very optimistic" all members would ratify the charter in time for the ASEAN summit in Bangkok later this year.


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