When foreign ministers from Asean and the European Union gather in Phnom Penh today for a two-day meeting on cooperation between the two regions, there may be an elephant in the room.
Lawmakers for the Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties issued a statement Tuesday urging the ministers “to take urgent action to secure the freedom of Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi,” and to consider Cambodia as a venue for a meeting to seek a “solution to the situation” in Burma.
Ms Suu Kyi is on trial in Burma, an Asean member country also known as Myanmar, after an American man swam to the opposition leader’s lakeside home, where she has been under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years after winning the 1990 election in a landslide.
Local human rights groups said Tuesday they plan to gather in front of the Burmese Embassy on Phnom Penh’s Norodom Boulevard today to send a message to the ministers gathering in Phnom Penh for the two-day meeting.
“We will rally to demand the release of Ms Suu Kyi, and to stop detaining her because it is a very serious violation of human rights in Burma,” said Thun Saray, president of local right group Adhoc.
Also on the eve of the Phnom Penh meeting, ministers from Europe and all of Asia who had met in Hanoi on Tuesday at the Asia-Europe Meeting urged Burma to release Ms Suu Kyi, according to a Reuters report. The ministers also condemned North Korea’s recent nuclear test.
After discussing Ms Suu Kyi’s imprisonment and trial in Burma, the ministers attending the meeting in Hanoi “called for the early release of those under detention and the lifting of restrictions placed on political parties,” Reuters said, quoting from a statement.
The two-day Hanoi meeting, which Cambodia helped coordinate, was attended by Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong, who will also co-chair the two-day meeting in Phnom Penh, said Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Phnom Penh. The other co-chair will be the representative from the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.
Burma is not on the agenda for the Phnom Penh meeting, which includes everything from the environment to the global economic crisis, Mr Kuong said. When asked if the subject of Burma and Ms Suu Kyi would be broached, he replied: “It’s up to the circumstances.”
Rafael Dochao Moreno, charge d’affaires of the European Commission delegation to Cambodia, said he would be surprised if the ministers failed to discuss the imprisonment of Ms Suu Kyi at some point during the meeting. He also said a statement could possibly emerge from the meeting.
“I can imagine if there had been a declaration in Hanoi, maybe there will be something in Phnom Penh,” Mr Dochao Moreno said. “As I say, it depends, because the Hanoi meeting is much bigger; it is not only Asean, but Asian, countries.”
In a surprise move last week, Thailand, the chair of Asean, released a statement expressing “grave concern” about developments related to Ms Suu Kyi, and said that Burma has a “responsibility to protect and promote human rights.”
Brad Mathieson, a Chiang Mai-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, praised that statement, but said Asean has a history of doing very little we in comes to Burma.
“In a sense, Asean’s been covering for them for more than 10 years,” he said of Burma, which he referred to as having been a “thorn in Asean’s side.”
The meeting in Phnom Penh is an opportunity for Asean to “work with the Europeans and really put pressure” on Burma, he continued.
“I think they should call, in the strongest terms, for the release of Suu Kyi,” he said. “But also just to say look, your membership is in doubt if you keep acting this way…. It’s time they actually laid down the gauntlet and said enough is enough, we’ve been diplomatic for years with you on the problem,” he said.
Many in the world see Ms Suu Kyi`s trial as an obvious attempt to put her in prison ahead of elections next year. She was due to be released from house arrest today.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)