Burma Has Taken over the ASEAN Chairmanship

Published: Nov 6, 2013 Reading time: 3 minutes
Burma Has Taken over the ASEAN Chairmanship
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At the regular summit of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), held in Brunei on the 10th October 2013, Burma symbolically took over the chairmanship of the organization. During the ceremony the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah handed over a golden hammer representing the chairman’s job to the Burmese President Thein Sein. Formally, the country assumes the ASEAN leadership in January 2014. It is supposed to host up to 1,100 different meetings during the year.

As early as at the beginning of December, the capital city is to stage the 27thSoutheast Asian Games, a multi-sport event involving participants from the region. The games are paralleled with the 1964 Summer Olympic Games taking place in Tokyo, which restored international reputation of the post-war Japan, thus enabling the country to regain the status of a regular member of the international community.  

ASEAN was established in 1967 as an international forum on economic, socio-cultural, and political and military affairs, comprising already ten countries. In 2006, Burma was assumed to take over the chairmanship for the first time, but concerns about an attendance boycott, which might have been imposed by the Western countries, were the overriding factor for leaving Burma out of the rotating presidency. At that time, the country was facing both harsh criticism in the area of relationships with the West and the imposition of sanctions of the European Union and the USA.

Shortly before the Brunei meeting, President Thein Sein had granted amnesty for 56 political prisoners including members of the Shan and Kachin armed groups. As well as all amnesties in Burma since 2012, even this pardon is not unconditional.  It is regulated by Article 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure stating that when arrested again, the previous due sentence reduced by amnesty would be added up to a possible new one.  In the last two years Thein Sein has resorted to the tactic of granting amnesty many times, especially on the eve of important international meetings, so that he could attain stronger negotiating position and enhance his image. In spite of the pledge to release all political prisoners by the end of the year, there are still more than 200 of them behind bars, and what is more the number is rapidly increasing. According to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), these days there are political activists being arrested mostly for undertaking activities to support human rights. These actions can be taken on the basis of Section 18 of the new Law on Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession, which AAPP decided to explain and publish as a short study.  

While some may perceive the presidency of a country which has not settled even its principal domestic affairs and lacks basic infrastructure as potentially problematic, the Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon considers the Burmese ASEAN chairmanship to pose a significant challenge to socio-economic development and democratic transformation of the country, as he expressed himself when meeting Thein Sein at the Brunei summit. At the same time the Secretary General voiced his worry over the so-far unresolved issue of ethnic conflicts: “Burma is going through a complex reform process that is naturally fully supported by the UN however we remain concerned about ongoing social violence.”


Paper on the current tactic of the Burmese regime for arresting political prisoners prepared by Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP):


Readout of the Secretary-General’s meeting with H.E. Mr U Thein Sein: http://www.un.org/sg/offthecuff/index.asp?nid=3133


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Autor: Marie Havlínová, Coordinator, Burmese Projects