The 19June 2007 once again brings the celebration of Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday. On this occasion, thousands of Burmese and international human rights defenders (HRDs) are celebrating the birthday of the world's only imprisoned Nobel Laureate and discussing plans for the future of democracy in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest was extended last month after her third detention following the Depayin Massacre on 30 May 2003, where her convoy was attacked by the Union for Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) a militia-wing of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). To date, she has been under house arrest for more than 11 years.
The day is also marked as the "Women's Day of Burma" to highlight the roles of women human rights defenders (WHRDs), including women political prisoners in Burma who are fighting and struggling for the betterment of the people, while their roles are rarely recognized.
Apart from recognizing Aung San Suu Kyi as the symbol of the struggle in Burma, there are women like Dr. Cythia Maung, who has worked for the betterment of the lives thousands of Karen refugees on Thai-Burma Boarder, or Sham Tong, a young Shan activist speaking out about the massive sexual abuses by the SPDC troops in the Shan State. There are also countless women political prisoners such as Daw Kyu Kyu Mar, a member of National League for Democracy (NLD) who was sentenced in 1999 for 21 years in jail for her political beliefs.1
The struggle for democracy in Burma has been ongoing since the people's uprising in 1988, with the denial of the 1990 Election Results where the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide vote but was ignored the military regime. After all of it, the same question was asked - will Burma see democracy in the near future?
Recently, the Burmese regime has cracked down on the pro-democracy activists inside the country. Many activists were harassed for simply calling peacefully for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. In May 2007 alone, 99 democracy and human rights defenders were arrested in the country.2
We can see that the number of demonstrators recently calling for the military regime to free "the lady" is on the rise. The awareness among civil society groups around the world focused on Burma is at its peak - the struggle for human rights and democracy in Burma has become a universal fight for all HRDs. At the very same time on 19 June 2007, activists in more than 20 countries around the world joined hands to acknowledge the hardship of the Burmese.
Even though some might speculate that ASEAN has been neglecting the issue of Burma, in the past decade we have seen the emergence of different groups working specifically on Burma such as the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma and the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentarian Myanmar Caucus (AIMPC), which brings together member of parliaments and senators from around the ASEAN nations to push for democratization in Burma.
The civil society groups were successful in pushing Burma to step aside in its bid for chairmanship of ASEAN in 2006. On the international level, the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council suggested the retention of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, which reflects Burma's ongoing importance.
While there has been progress in terms of the massive awareness of the plight of the Burmese, the situation of the Burmese people has not improved and perhaps worsened. The military regime spends 30-50 percent of its budget on the armed forces, but only 3 percent for its budge on health and 8 percent on education. Since 1996 the regime has displaced more than 600,000 people through military offensives against the ethnic groups.3
Close to 691,000 refugees and millions of people who are not documented as refugees have fled Burma. Burma is a major supplier of illicit drugs to the international market, providing 80 percent of Southeast Asia's opium and heroin production in Asia in 2001. Additionally, HIV/AIDS will spread unabated in the country without protection or education from the government.4
That civil society has been able to engage ASEAN on the issue of Burma is a big step, but there is much more that needs to be done. ASEAN as the only regional organization in Southeast Asia, and as such, it needs to be more vocal in pushing for the military regime to pursue democracy for the concrete development in Burma. It is no longer acceptable for ASEAN to turn its eyes away from its most problematic issue.
The hugely important Burma issue should be emphasized especially during the process of drafting the ASEAN Charter, so that the ASEAN proclamation for the "ASEAN: Caring and Sharing Community", as well as democracy and the rule of law, can truly be upheld. The Burmese people of the ASEAN community should not have to wait any longer.
Pokpong Lawansiri is the Human Rights Defenders Program Officer at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a regional human rights NGO based in Bangkok, Thailand. His focus is on advocacy for the protection of human rights defenders in Asia and he has been closely monitoring the human rights situation in Thailand and Burma.
1 Women Political Prisoners in Burma: Joint Report. Published by: Burmese Women's Union and Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), September 2004 (Pg. 101-102)
3 Threat to Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma. Published by DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. 20 September 2005 (Pg. 25, 30)
4 Ibid (Pg. 31, 50-58).