burmese Human Rights block to EU-Southeast Asia trade pact

Burmese human rights block to EU-Southeast Asia trade pact

LEIGH PHILLIPS, 02.06.2009, euobserver: The European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have suspended free trade negotiations between the two sides over the question of human rights abuses in Burma.

After two years, discussions have ground to a halt, the Indonesian trade minister Mari Pangestu said on Monday (1 June), as reported by Agence France Press.

Aung San Suu Kyi - a block to ASEAN-EU trade negotiations (Photo: Nobel Peace Center)

"We are temporarily postponing the negotiations," she said to the French news agency on the margins of an ASEAN-South Korea summit. "Take a pause, not cancel," she added.

She ascribed the suspension to differences over green issues and workers' rights.

"Obviously, Europe wants to have a much more comprehensive coverage of issues like environment (and) labour, which are sensitive for ASEAN countries," she said.

However, the news agency also quotes unnamed diplomatic sources from both ASEAN and the EU, as saying human rights abuses and foot-dragging over democratic reforms in Burma were behind the development.

The revelation contradicts statements made by the two organisations last Thursday following the 17th ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh.

At the time, a joint statement highlighted co-operation between ASEAN and the EU, notably over the global economic crisis, disease prevention, food and energy security and the environment.

"The meeting was held in the traditional spirit of openness, trust and solidarity that is the corollary of more than 30 years of dialogue and cooperation," read the communiqué that was issued at the end of the meeting.

The two transnational blocs at the time also said that they had agreed to look for ways to give fresh impetus to the ASEAN-EU free trade agreement talks.

Anti-terrorism, human and drug trafficking, money laundering and cyber-crime were also on the agenda, as well as co-operation over disaster preparedness and humanitarian aid.

The Cambodian foreign minister, Hor Namhong, had said that there had been an exchange of views over the situation in Burma, with European ministers calling for the release of political prisoners and co-operation between the Burmese government and the UN.

However, according to the Asia Times, discussion of Burma all but blocked talks on other issues.

The online paper reports that just minutes into the ministerial meeting, Burmese deputy foreign minister Maung Myint told delegates not to discuss the internal of his country.

"It is not political, it is not a human-rights issue. So we don't accept pressure and interference from abroad," he said, according to the Asian Times, referring to the ongoing trial of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Ky.

The 63-year-old human rights symbol and Nobel Peace Prize winner is currently on trial and faces up to five years for allegedly breaching the terms of her house arrest after an American soldier swam to her house.

EU delegates reportedly rejected the minister's statement and launched into a discussion of the matter that "lasted hours" and hampered discussion of other subjects.

Czech foreign minister Jan Kohout, whose country currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, said Burma had taken "a big step backwards".

The ASEAN-EU meeting was attended by delegates from all EU member stated and the ten members of ASEAN, along with representatives of the European Commission and the ASEAN Secretariat.

ASEAN, which brings together Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, will hold its next ministerial meeting with the EU in Spain in 2010.