Wed, 24 Jul 1996

ASEAN inconsistent on rights

By Arief Budiman

SALATIGA, Central Java (JP): One of the most publicized controversies in the 29th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) taking place these days in Jakarta is the official acceptance of Myanmar as an observer. According to procedure, this is the step before it can be admitted as full member.

The controversy flared when the western industrial countries objected to the acceptance of Myanmar as a prospective member of this regional organization. This is due to the bad human rights record of this country. Manuel Marin, the vice-president of the European Union has made it clear that taking Myanmar as a full member could jeopardize the Union's plan to deepen its relationship with ASEAN. The European Union's 15 countries have already reduced diplomatic contact with Myanmar following the death of Leo Nichols, an honorary consul for four European countries, in the custody of the Myanmar military regime. In Bangkok, Myanmarese and Thai students protested against Myanmar's admittance as observer in ASEAN.

Why is the issue of human rights so important? Is it only important to the industrial west where economic standards are high and the political system is sophisticated, while the ASEAN countries have not achieved this stage yet?

If we look at the history of human rights, we will realize that human rights concern everyone who wants to live in a civilized society. According to political philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes or Montesquieu, in the dawn of human history, man lived in a "natural society." In this society, there was no public law. The existing law was the law of nature in which, according to Hobbes, everybody was constantly at war with everybody else.

To improve the situation, people agreed to give their sovereignty to a higher body called the state. With the birth of the state, "political society" was created, replacing "natural society". Law and order, stability and security were then provided by the state.

However, the absolute power of the state also gave the state the option to abuse this power. To prevent this, John Locke then started to talk about the duty of the state to protect the basic rights of man, the rights to life, freedom and property. This is the area in which the state has no power. Thus what is now known as the "civil society" was born. The state was still powerful, but not without limits. Locke's notion on these basic rights of man became the basis of the present human rights concept.

Thus, human rights are the weapons of the citizenry, weak vis- a-vis the state, to defend themselves against the abuse of power by the state. The human rights struggle is in many instances related to the democracy struggle -- they are usually two sides of the same coin.

When the process of globalization comes, it increases not only cooperation among states, but also among civil societies. Human rights and democracy struggles have become globalized and therefore more effective. Human rights violations and democracy suppression in South Africa (before Mandela), China (Tienanmen) and Bosnia, to give a few examples, were protested by people all over the world. The birth of international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is the manifestation of this internationalization of civil societies.

In countries all over the world, people whose rights have been abused by the state expect people from other countries to launch solidarity campaigns to help them. This is clearly the hope of many of those fighting for human rights and democracy in Myanmar. After Aung San Suu Kyi won the election several years ago, the results were rejected by the military regime in order to cling on to power.

This was followed by arbitrary arrests and even the killing of some democracy activists (the 1988 massacres) of the country. However, led by their famous leader, who won the Peace Noble Prize, the struggle did not end. The strength of Aung San Suu Kyi has come from the support of the international community. Without this international support, it is very unlikely the non-violent struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi could have been brought into the present stage.

Now the questions: Is it not our duty, as a civilized people and nation, to help this struggle for democracy of a people who already expressed their will in a general election? Or do we prefer to support the military who took power against the will of the majority of the Myanmar people? We, Indonesians, have to remember that we were helped by the people of other countries during our struggle for independence between 1945 and 1949.

Defending ASEAN's position, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas was quoted as saying that Myanmar did not create any problems for its neighbors. Therefore, the political problems related to the violation of human rights and suppression of democracy are considered domestic affairs of the country, in which ASEAN did not want to meddle.

In commenting on this statement, let us reflect on this. If during our independence struggle, a leader of a foreign country had said that this struggle was the internal affair of the Dutch and its colony, I would imagine that our feelings would have been hurt.

This may be why Indonesia has always been sensitive, helping democracy struggles and protesting human rights violations in other countries. Many ASEAN countries including Indonesia were very concerned with the massacre of innocent people in Bosnia, although it did not directly bother ASEAN countries.

This is of course a very understandable attitude, because as former colonies, many ASEAN countries have experienced the bitterness of being oppressed by our colonial masters. We can feel the suffering of the people, we can't just close our eyes and say it is the internal matter of the respective country. True, in Myanmar things are not as bad as in Bosnia. However, in principle what happened in both countries is the same: appalling human rights violations and suppression of democracy.

So, when Minister Ali Alatas talked about human rights violations in Myanmar as the country's internal problem, we can clearly see the inconsistency of ASEAN in dealing with the oppression of democracy and human rights in different countries. About Bosnia, ASEAN showed great concern. However, ASEAN has different standards in dealing with human rights violations in Myanmar.

In my opinion, if ASEAN still wants to admit Myanmar as a member, with "constructive engagement" as an alternative to hostile confrontation, an official statement concerning human rights violation on human rights in Myanmar has to be issued.

Otherwise, ASEAN will be recorded in history as an association of state bureaucrats, not of peoples who share the same problems in their respective countries in dealing with human rights and democracy. This may be the real reason why they are not able to criticize what is happening in Myanmar.

The writer is a sociologist and researcher based in Salatiga.