Yesterday’s report from Rangoon that the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) had declared the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader, off-limits to journalists is the latest in a series of undemocratic measures by the military junta and also an admission of its fear of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
How can SLORC claim to be in “full control” of the country and to have unquestioned legitimacy as the government of Burma as to be entitled to be admitted as a member of ASEAN when the military junta is so fearful of Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who is propagating non-violent promotion of democracy?
While ASEAN should not interfere in the domestic affairs of another country, whether inside or outside ASEAN, ASEAN nations have an international responsibility to speak up against and even condemn gross and persistent violations of human rights.
If apartheid South Africa had been geographically positioned in South East Asia, would ASEAN countries welcomed it with open arms as a full member of the regional organisation - closing their eyes to the immoral and inhuman apartheid policies?
For the same reason, ASEAN countries cannot close their eyes to gross and persistent violations of human rights in Burma, where the army even bans fax machines, modems and computers with network, with violators facing prison terms and unspecified fines.
Another important factor which ASEAN countries must take into account in considering SLORC’s application for membership in ASEAN is the drugs trafficking situation in Burma, and in particular, the role of SLORC in the booming heroin trade.
Burma is the largest producer of illicit narcotics in the region, by far the greatest transit point for organised drugs smuggling, and an important place for laundering the drug profits of organised crime.
Burma has more than doubled its illicit drug exports since the SLORC takeover in 1988. At a United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) regional conference in November 1993, French and American satellite surveys were presented showing an explosion of poppy growing in areas directly under SLORC control.
The UNDCP also reported at the UN-sponsored Heads of Narcotics Law Enforcement Agencies international meeting in November last year that the Asian heroin trade reaps US$63 billion in profits annually. Burma is by far the largest exporter in the region, providing over 50 percent of the world's supply. This booming heroin trade has sent a flood of narco-dollars into Rangoon.
A study by the International Monetary Fund cites large expenditures unaccounted for by the Burmese government. For instance, despite the fact that Burma's foreign exchange reserves for 1991 through 1993 were only approximately US$300 million, the SLORC purchased arms valued at US$1.2 billion during the period.
Various reports have highlighted the integration of narco dollars into the Burmese national economy with one study estimating that at least 50 percent of Burma's economy is unaccounted for and extralegal.
As drugs trafficking threatens to destroy the very fibre of ASEAN societies, SLORC must be made more accountable both internationally and regionally in the war against international drug trafficking and must produce results on this front.
In fact, ASEAN should set up a monthly monitor of the democratic reforms and the drug trafficking situation in Burma as two important criteria for deciding the suitability of admitting SLORC into ASEAN
Tomorrow is the Independence Day anniversary of Burma, which became an independent republic outside the Commonwealth on 4th January 1948.
When Burma became independent, her living standard was one of the highest in Asia and the level of education surpassed that of its then backward neighbours.
Forty-nine years later, Burma is among the poorest nations in the world while her higher education lags behind many nations which had once looked up to her for example and inspiration.
The annual production of opium in the Burmese sector of the Golden triangle totalled some 30 tons when Burma became independent in 1948, but in 1996, it produced 2,560 tons of raw opium, some 8,000% increase.
The history of Burma is one of the sorriest stories of independence in the post-war world. ASEAN nations should not stand in the way of the brave struggle of the Burmese people to shake off over thirty years’ military rule since 1962 to build a modern, democratic Burma.
This is the most important reason why an unreformed SLORC should not be admitted into ASEAN this year.