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An ASEAN database state?

Joseph Allchin
Nov 20, 2009 (DVB), Plans for a regional Southeast Asian immigration database are to be tabled in Manila next week, but questions are already being asked as to how it will accommodate 'rogue' states like Burma.

The plans, to be discussed at a meeting of immigration ministers on Monday, proposes to create a database that immigration officials in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc can consult to see if individuals have been blacklisted or otherwise flagged by member nations. The proposals also open the possibility for a European Union-style common visa for foreign nationals to benefit trade and tourism.

The data base is being sold as a tool to combat terrorism and transnational crime in ASEAN, but the lack of coherent values and interpretation could be a cause for concern. "Many wanted criminals live in Burma; how would they interpret that?" says Kraisak Choonhaven of the ASEAN Inter Parliamentary Caucus on Myanmar (AIPMC).

He points to the example of Moongran, "a well-known criminal now supposedly in Burma" who had escaped from a Thai prison. But a long-held accusation that Burma is harbouring key players in the southeast Asia drugs trade, whilst Thailand and other ASEAN nations have waged a bitter war against it, is likely to complicate plans. Another famous example is Burmese drug baron, Khun Sa. "They are wanted by Thailand or Interpol, but they are now in these [junta-allied] ceasefire groups, and I think it would be very difficult to enforce."

Perhaps more worryingly, if all countries cooperated in the sharing of visa blacklists, then the Burmese military's interpretation of a 'criminal' may extend to refugees and civil society group members who reside and are sheltered by countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. This possibility has already raised concern among Burmese democracy activists based in Thailand.

The row between Cambodia and Thailand over the harbouring of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has also threatened to ask questions for Thailand, which has labeled Thaksin a criminal. Moreover, Cambodia is seen as an ally of Burma in the ASEAN sphere, and there are fears that the Burmese government would use Thailand's extradition requests for Thaksin as a bargaining chip to pressure Bangkok to clamp down on Burmese activists in Thailand.

"I think [Cambodia premier] Hun Sen is playing the Thaksin card to undermine the Thai position on their border dispute and to deter the Thai initiative regarding Burma" said Dr Naing Aung of the Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB).

The Thaksin issue has also raised questions of regional 'non-interference', a cornerstone of ASEAN policy that will again be scrutinized if the database plan gets the go-ahead. For Benjamin Zawacki, Burma expert at Amnesty International, "the non-interference policy is invoked very selectively."

A common visa for foreigners would also draw an interesting dilemma for Burma's military rulers, who would likely appreciate all the help they can get in surveying and harassing dissenters in other ASEAN nations, but would balk if access beyond its borders was as straightforward as it is for Thailand or other more liberal ASEAN nations.

Attempts at similar databases have provoked uproar in other parts of the world, with transnational 'blacklist politics' brought under the radar in the West during the ignominious 'War on Terror'. In one incident, a Libyan-born British resident whose father was persecuted by Gaddafi was picked up and detained in Guantanamo Bay for six years, during which he was tortured and blinded in one eye. Despite being released, he remains 'blacklisted', and Spanish authorities had unsuccessfully tried to extradite him on the grounds of aesthetic similarities to a wanted Chechen rebel.

The fear of this labeling or misappropriation is corroborated by Zawacki: "The terrorist tag could be a convenient one to attach to anyone whom the [Burmese] government sees as an opponent," he said. "We have seen this already; there are over 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar [Burma] many of whom the government has publicly labeled as terrorists. The fear would be that it would refer to legitimate, even peaceful, opponents."

His comments are echoed by Kraisak, who said he could see "a huge problem with Burma", one case being members of the opposition National League for Democracy party who end up in jail. "How will ASEAN interpret that? They are political prisoners; it raises more questions than answers."

The perpetual ethos of ASEAN has been 'non-interference', and member states undoubtedly have an understanding of the idiosyncrasies of other nations. It seems highly implausible, however, that Burma, a nation considered to be among the most corrupt on earth, indeed possibly the most corrupt country with a working government, could interact with its neighbours on the issue.

"Any time the government of Myanmar becomes involved, you'd like to believe they are acting under good faith, but when it comes to their opponents they will invoke any and all sorts of laws," said Zawacki. "If you look at the sort of laws they bring to bear against people who have supposedly committed offenses, often the offence and the law don't match up."

So whilst combating transnational crime is an area where regional cooperation would help, it could be a worrying addition to the ASEAN landscape if common values are not agreed upon and enforced between member states before we start collectively sharing 'blacklists'.