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Burma’s widely condemned election plans will loom large at this week’s ASEAN summit, but criticism is unlikely from regional nations with their own flawed records on rights and democracy, observers say.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit is being chaired by communist Vietnam, a one-party state that is accused of overseeing deteriorating human rights.
Laos and Cambodia are other members worried about setting a precedent that would make discussion of human rights more acceptable within the bloc, said Christopher Roberts, from the University of Canberra, Australia.
“I think that’s a central concern,” said Roberts, a lecturer in Asian politics and security.
Philippine foreign affairs secretary Alberto Romulo has said he will urge members at the talks to call for a reversal of Burma’s electoral laws, which he said contravene the junta’s promises to embark on a “roadmap to democracy.”
Burma’s opposition, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, said last week it would boycott the ballot – the first in two decades – expected to be held later this year.
Under the new electoral laws, the party would have to expel Suu Kyi if it wanted to participate because she is serving a prison term. The Nobel peace laureate has been detained for 14 of the last 20 years.
Without her, the vote cannot be free and fair, say Japan, Australia and Britain. The United States blamed the ruling junta for the opposition boycott, saying the regime had missed an opportunity to move forward.
Leaders of ASEAN’s 10 members are to hold their talks, a twice-yearly event, on Thursday and Friday.
Burma has always escaped formal censure from the grouping in the past and observers see virtually no chance of this meeting producing a joint statement criticising the Burma vote.
“They are holding an election. Why are you complaining? This is the mentality of a lot of the ASEAN,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore (ISEAS).
Although a big question mark surrounds the legitimacy of Burma’s next government, “not every regime in ASEAN is legitimate anyway,” he said.
Thailand’s army-backed government, for example, is under pressure from street protesters demanding snap polls to replace an administration they say is undemocratic after coming to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote.
The ASEAN summit comes just a few days after its host, Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, held talks in Burma with junta leaders.
An Asian diplomat said he expected Dung would have told the ruling generals that the elections will be under global scrutiny and “need to be credible”.
But Dung would not have pushed the regime to allow Suu Kyi to run in the polls because Burma could then ask Vietnam to release its own prominent detainees, said the diplomat, who requested anonymity.
Human rights activists say ASEAN’s longstanding principle of non-interference in members’ internal affairs also restricts its ability to criticise Burma.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said Vietnam “has consistently resisted efforts to raise human rights issues within ASEAN.”
The bloc’s diverse membership ranges from Communist Laos, one of Asia’s poorest nations, to the Westernised city-state of Singapore, the absolute monarchy of Brunei and the vibrant democracy of Indonesia.
“I see a growing gap in the values within the ASEAN states”, which are divided between conservatives and those – often led by Indonesia – seeking change, said University of Canberra’s Roberts.
The region is at a crossroads, said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Forum-Asia, an umbrella for regional rights groups.
Rapid economic development and rising education levels have created a strong middle class that is helping to push many countries – including Vietnam, but not Burma – from authoritarian-style rule towards more democratic systems, said Yap.
“The people are demanding more and more participation in the decision-making,” he said, adding the issue is whether regimes will be able to adapt to those demands.