(Analysis) – Asian observers say Burmese President Thein Sein’s tour of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos may be focused privately on building goodwill for the lifting of U.S. and Western economic sanctions.
They note that two things seem critical now for Burma: first to come out of the April 1 by-election with a clean record, or at least a record clean enough to have the election accepted by the U.S. and European Union countries; second, to have a back-up plan of goodwill and support for the removal of sanctions from the members of the Southeast Asian Association of Nations (Asean).
Hence, Thein Sein’s diplomatic efforts in the three Southeast Asian nations that most closely resemble Burma: all have powerful central governments (two are Communist), all have tight censorship and control of the local media, and all need allies who share their views of moving into the future with strong central-state control.
Indeed, the government of Cambodia closely resembles the former military regime of Burma. Human Rights Watch says last year it increased repression of freedom of speech, assembly, and association, tightening the space for civil society to operate. Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party used the judiciary, new laws, and threats of arrest or legal action to restrict free speech, jail government critics, disperse workers and farmers peacefully protesting, and silence opposition party members. Police and the military routinely use torture to extract confessions from detainees, says HRW.
However, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos together could represent a like-minded block in strengthening the Asian community’s perception that Burma has reformed and sanctions need to be lifted, independent observers told the Phnom Penh Post on Wednesday. Thein Sein will also have a chance to underscore this message during the Asean summit in Cambodia on April 3 and 4.
Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Thein Sein had promised Hun Sen on Wednesday that Burma’s by-elections next month would be fair.
Chheang Vanarith, the director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, told the Post that he believed Thein Sein’s visit was aimed at shoring up support from Asean nations to have international sanctions dropped and building goodwill so that Asian nations would carry that message to U.S. and European governments.
“We will wait to see after the election next month . . . if Myanmar can keep building the trust of the international community,” he said.
Carlyle Thayer, a politics professor at the University of New South Wales, was quoted as saying, “This is about Asean. Bilaterally, there is not much to exchange between Cambodia and Myanmar.”
However, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told the newspaper, “What we think President Thein Sein should be talking to the Cambodian government about is how to ensure that both countries meet their obligations under the Asean Charter to respect international human rights standards.”