MAY 18, 2009 (STAR) The Philippines expressed outrage yesterday over what it called as trumped-up charges that Myanmar’s military junta has filed against opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo called for the immediate and unconditional release of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and other members of the political opposition detained by the country’s military leaders.

“The Philippine government is deeply troubled and outraged over the filing of trumped-up charges against Aung San Suu Kyi and her transfer to Insein prison,” he said, referring to the jail where she will be tried today.

“It is high time for the Myanmar government to carry out its own ‘roadmap for democracy’ – its avowed program of releasing political detainees,” Romulo said. “Fulfilling these commitments is long overdue.”

The junta has pledged to free political detainees and hold elections next year as part of a much-discussed “roadmap” to restore democracy to the country, which has been ruled by the military since 1962.

Suu Kyi has been charged with violating the terms of her house arrest, and if convicted would likely be in prison when the elections take place.

Her party won elections in 1990 but was never allowed to take office.

The Philippines is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with Myanmar as well as Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

ASEAN has long been criticized for failing to press Myanmar to take stronger steps toward democracy in contrast to the tough sanctions on the country, formerly known as Burma, which have been imposed by Western nations.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has also joined an international appeal for the release of Suu Kyi in a statement issued over the weekend.

The CHR urged Myanmar’s Senior General Than Shwe to fulfill their promise of free and democratic governance of the Myanmar people.

“This latest development is a step backwards and incongruous with the junta’s 12 Steps to Democracy,” part of the statement said.

“Now is not the time for the Burmese leadership to tread backwards into a long history notorious for human rights violations” especially since a Constitution has already been set in place, ratified by the Burmese people by referendum, and elections scheduled for next year,” it added.

It said that an almost certain renewed detention of Suu Kyi, which could extend beyond the 2010 elections, despite still sketchy details of the latest charge leveled against her, will work to the” detriment of free and unimpeded suffrage” in Myanmar.

Flimsy charges

The 63-year-old Suu Kyi was charged Thursday with breaking the conditions of her nearly six-year house arrest after an American intruder swam and sneaked inside her lakeside villa in Yangon this month.

If convicted, she faces up to five years in jail.

Suu Kyi’s two female companions have also been charged in a case denounced by critics as a pretext for keeping the charismatic opposition leader in detention ahead of elections in 2010. Her current detention expires on May 27.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide election victory in 1990 only to be denied power by the military, which has ruled the former Burma since 1962.

The generals have detained Suu Kyi for more than 13 of the past 19 years without trial for her non-violent promotion of democracy, mostly at her home on a leafy Yangon avenue guarded by police.

Her phone line was cut and visitors were restricted.

Suu Kyi’s doctor, Tin Myo Win, was freed late on Saturday after he was detained on May 7 for questioning, relatives said.

She was recently treated for low blood pressure and dehydration, and activists fear for her health in prison.

Rights groups also slammed the junta on Saturday for revoking the law license of Aung Thein, a prominent activist lawyer who was to be on Suu Kyi’s defense team.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) called it “a blatant attempt by the regime to damage the defense for Suu Kyi and her two live-in party members.”

World leaders, human rights groups, and fellow Nobel laureates condemned the move as an attempt by the military junta to silence its chief opponent ahead of the election next year.

ASEAN eerily silent

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors have been largely mute over Suu Kyi’s legal woes, in a fresh display of the bloc’s failings as a diplomatic force, observers say.

The ASEAN has long pursued a soft approach toward promoting change in its most troublesome member, in contrast to the tough sanctions preferred by Western nations.

But it has little to show for its efforts since admitting Myanmar to the club in 1997, as the ruling generals have kept the opposition leader under house arrest for years and brutally cracked down on protesters in 2007.

“We really hope that they come out and ratchet up the pressure. Since Burma was admitted 12 years ago, ASEAN has squandered any opportunity to speak more openly about Burma,” David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said, referring to the country by its former name.

The charges prompted howls of protest from the West, but of Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN members only the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore have issued condemnations of the junta’s actions.

Mathieson said the fact that such key members of the bloc had spoken out strongly “impels the group to come up with something,” but added that it would still likely be a fairly toothless statement.

Despite talks among ASEAN envoys in Yangon, the 10-member group has still not issued any official pronouncement on the matter since the charges were announced on Thursday.

“It adds another layer of embarrassment,” Mathieson said, adding that the Myanmar issue had been a “central factor in spoiling relations within ASEAN for the last five years.”

Human rights have been a perennial challenge for ASEAN in the 42 years since it was founded as a bulwark against the spread of communism, largely because of its oft-stated policy of non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs.

The latest debacle is especially embarrassing as it comes just months after the bloc adopted a new charter setting out benchmarks for democracy and human rights.

Myanmar analyst Aung Naing Oo said ASEAN had been effective in persuading the junta to accept foreign aid following last year’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, which killed 138,000 people.

“They did help, they did play a key role after Nargis. But it is the only good thing they have done,” said Aung Naing Oo, who is based in northern Thailand.

“Burma has been a thorn in ASEAN’s side. They do want to do something, but quite obviously ASEAN has failed in many respects,” he said.

Top officials from ASEAN and its six partners – China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand – are set to meet on Myanmar on the sidelines of a regular meeting in the Thai tourist island of Phuket on Tuesday.

But the latest issue is symptomatic of a wider Asian reluctance to act on Myanmar, with the major exception of Japan, which has strongly condemned the Suu Kyi charges.

London-based Amnesty International urged the United Nations, and notably China, Japan and ASEAN states, to use their influence to secure her release.

“Now more than ever, the (UN) Security Council and ASEAN member states must send an unequivocal signal to the generals that they can no longer act with impunity,” said the group’s Myanmar expert, Benjamin Zawacki.

China, one of Myanmar’s closest allies and a major consumer of its vast natural resources, has also remained silent on the charges against Suu Kyi, as has India.

However, Mathieson said China had taken “a lot of flak” at the United Nations and elsewhere over Myanmar and would probably use some behind-the-scenes pressure.

“China has a lot of leverage over Burma, although they are not willing to use it overtly. Privately they will say to Burma, just resolve this and move on,” he said. – Katherine Adraneda, Jose Rodel Clapano

Palace offer of help to 'Vanessa' like a 'kiss of death' By Katherine Adraneda Updated May 18, 2009 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Like a kiss of death.

This was how militant women’s group Gabriela described yesterday the offer of Malacañang to support “Vanessa,” said to be the latest rape victim allegedly of another US serviceman in the Philippines.

In a statement, Gabriela said it is “disgustingly hypocritical” of the Arroyo administration to offer its support to Vanessa after it “sold out justice in the Subic rape case.”

“After the unconscionable handling of the Arroyo government on the Subic rape case – by being the prime accomplice of the US government to free (Lance Corporal Daniel) Smith and spare the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) – Malacañang now has the gall to pretend that it will support Vanessa in her quest for justice,” said Emmi de Jesus, secretary-general of Gabriela.

Vanessa sought the help of Gabriela the day after an alleged US Marine, whom the group called John Jones, allegedly raped her last April 19 in a five-star hotel in Makati City.

She recounted her “ordeal” during a press conference last Thursday at the Gabriela office in Quezon City.

Vanessa, however, opted not to bring her case before the court, apparently discouraged by the fate of the case of “Nicole” who left for the US days before the Court of Appeals acquitted last month her purported attacker who was earlier convicted by the lower court for rape.

Gabriela was also the group that helped Nicole during her legal battle against Smith.

The group said Vanessa’s coming out and relating her ordeal before the media was merely to let the public know about the alleged abuses of American servicemen against women in the country.

“The legal action is not a foremost concern at this point regarding the victim, Vanessa (not her real name),” De Jesus said.

“Revealing her ordeal opened a floodgate of renewed anguish but this is part of the process for her to come to terms with the impact of violence committed against her. The utmost priority is to help Vanessa cope,” she also said.

Last Friday, women from various groups and professions gathered in a forum titled “Rape and US Militarism.”

The forum aimed “to dissect the anatomy of rape vis-a-vis the culture of violence embedded within US militarist policies.”

De Jesus insisted that women in the country continue to be vulnerable, go through so much anguish, and are discouraged from seeking justice.

He lamented that it seems that US troops can freely commit crimes and go unpunished “because they are (given assurance) that the US and Philippine governments will work to absolve them.”

Gabriela vowed to continue to work with other groups to end US military presence in the country and abrogate the VFA.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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