28 March – 3 April 2014edge review

Photo: An activist sits in on a workshop at the 2014 ACSC/APF in Yangon (Jo Straube/ACSC/APF/Facebook)

Regional civil society gathering highlights Myanmar’s incomplete reforms and the difficulty of Asean-wide agenda-setting

If the SEA Games last December served as the coming out party for Myanmar’s reform process, 2014 marks the country’s first year as Asean’s most eligible debutante. But some of Myanmar’s most strident critics have required more convincing than others that the reforms are sincere.

When Naypyidaw was awarded this year’s rotating Asean chair back in 2011, the move drew heavy criticism from regional civil society networks, which deemed the award premature due to Myanmar’s poor human rights record. But over the course of three years, Naypyidaw has done a commendable job of turning critics into potential partners for constructive dialogue, although it is tough to say how much the government will actually listen.

The Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean People’s Forum (ACSC/APF), an annual gathering of regional civil society actors, was held in Yangon last week. The fact that the conference was allowed to proceed largely unhindered sets a precedent for how Myanmar engages with civil society actors, and – for now, at least – indicates that its reform-minded leaders are tolerant of civil society to a greater degree than some other members of the ten-country bloc.

While Southeast Asia’s more democratic states have robust civil societies, their ability to use the transnational framework provided by Asean to affect policymaking is limited. “Civil society is still marginal in Asean; we are still not fully recognised,” said Atnike Nova Sigiro, who works on Asean engagement issues for Forum-Asia, a Geneva-headquartered, Bangkok-based regional human rights organisation.

Article 16 of the Asean Charter provides for formal relationships between the bloc and civil society groups, but Sigiro claims it is selective when it comes to the voices it listens to. “They have accreditation for certain civil society organisations, but for human rights issues it’s very limited,” she said. Moreover, the charter itself may prove to be a stumbling block for further civil society participation within Asean. Article two enshrines states’ rights to “non interference in internal affairs” – a shield, critics claim, that precludes Asean from taking a leading role in tackling human rights abuses committed by member states.

ASEAN-led efforts to improve communication between civil society representatives and national governments have likewise proven contentious. The ACSC itself was initially an initiative launched by the Malaysian government at the 2005 Asean Summit to establish a formal ‘interface’ between national civil society representatives and their leaders. But activists became disillusioned with restrictions placed on them, leading them to reform the ACSC on their own terms to assert their independence.

“A lot of civil society organisations, over the years, noticed that most of the governments chose [their own] delegates,” said Joey Dimaandal, a programme officer with the Manila-based Southeast Asian Committee for Advocacy, which conducts political trainings around the region. “Some of us decided that… if we [could not] choose our own delegates in the interface, we would not participate at all.”

The inability or unwillingness of Asean to prevent interference from member states in the ACSC was laid bare at its 2009 iteration, held at the seaside resort town of Hua Hin in Thailand. Delegates from five countries – Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines – were barred from speaking at the event, propting other delegates to walk out in solidarity.

Myanmar replaced the chosen delegate, Khin Ohmar of the formerly exiled activist group Burma Partnership, with two members of the Myanmar Anti-Narcotics association, one of whom was a former police officer. In the wake of Hua Hin, regional networks incorporated the ASCS under the banner of a new, ostensibly independent, Asean People’s Forum.

Myanmar may be shedding its image as Asean’s human-rights problem child, but that doesn’t mean the government has given up all of its old ways. “It’s in the interests of the government to have a [civil society] conference. They want to put a good face on it,” an organiser, who did not want to be named, told The Edge Review. “They need us, but they don’t want us… it’s not exactly happily ever after.”

Aung Min, the minister of the President’s Office and the government’s lead peace negotiator, gave an opening address in which he invited participants’ “support, your criticism, your ability to foster and facilitate debate and actions.” But organisers reported that intelligence agents from the police’s once-feared Special Branch sat in on seminars, keeping tabs on conference participants.

Cambodian agents apparently infiltrated this year’s forum as well, perhaps unsurprising given their antagonistic history with its organisers. The 2012 forum, held in Phnom Penh, was thrown into chaos after the government set up its own, parallel forum across town, and demanded the hotel hosting the civil-society-sanctioned event censor certain panels.

The nature of Myanmar’s engagement with its own civil society is at a critical juncture. A draft association bill has already passed through parliament, and is awaiting the approval of the president before it can be passed into law. An early draft of the law was met by a chorus of disapproval from domestic and foreign civil society actors alike, as it forced groups to register with the authorities and stipulated penalties for those who refused to do so.

The final draft, however, which was formulated with the input of civil society groups, removes all mention of penalties and does not compel NGOs and activist groups to register with the authorities. Registering may in fact be a good thing, as it should – in theory – put civil society groups closer to the orbit of policymakers and government officials.

The delegations who populate the APF come to the forum with a diverse jumble of causes – labour issues, political rights, environmental concerns. Not all of these reflect the opinion of majorities within Asean states or within the block as a whole. One of the more vocal groups at this year’s APF was the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) caucus, whose call for inclusion has not always been appreciated by all delegates or regional governments. “We tried to get [LGBT issues] on the agenda [for the ASEAN charter], and it was actually discussed, but it was blocked by Malaysia and Brunei,” said King Oey, a member of Arus Pelangi, an Indonesian LGBT rights group. “[They offered] a compromise, which was at least it mentions discrimination based on sex.”

Despite Indonesia’s Muslim majority, Oey claims the Indonesian government has been receptive to his organisation’s aims, even if its responses fall short of vocal support. “From a psychological [perspective], I think it’s also a question of getting used to meeting with LGBT people,” he said. “As long as you don’t know them, it’s easy to discount them as a marginal group, easy to push into hiding. Which, of course, the majority of LGBT still [are].”

And despite the Myanmar government’s apparent steps to forge relationships with civil society organisations, its treatment of its own vulnerable minorities tells a different story. Muslims – particularly the Rohingya – are regularly scapegoated in the name of political expediency, and a number of civil society activists working on behalf of landless farmers have been arrested over the past few months. The legal framework establishing the formal relationship between the government and civil society that is set to go into effect soon appears to be a good first step, but proof of sincerity will be clear once the spotlight shining on Myanmar in its Asean banner year fades away.

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