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Myanmar rights under the microscope at ASEAN meeting

Myanmar faces being called to account for stalling reforms when it hosts a top global diplomats at a security forum later this week, with religious clashes and curbs on press freedom taking the sheen off its emergence from military-rule.

Myanmar rights under the microscope at ASEAN meeting
Myanmar rights under the microscope at ASEAN meeting

The former pariah nation has enjoyed praise since a quasi-civilian government launched ambitious political and economic reforms three years ago, heralding the end of most Western sanctions.

But the international community has voiced increasing frustration as Buddhist nationalism appears to tighten its grip on the nation with fresh attacks against Muslims last month, while journalist arrests have also raised uncertainty over the extent of newly-won press freedoms.

Several Western nations have raised concerns over rights issues in Myanmar in recent weeks, but the main message is likely to come from US Secretary of State John Kerry as he tests the water ahead of a possible visit by President Barack Obama later in the year.

Meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which will begin as regional foreign minister talks on Friday and widen to include world powers over the weekend, will likely be dominated by ASEAN wrangles with Beijing over the South China Sea, but Kerry is also likely to seek to raise Myanmar’s rights record.

America’s top diplomat will urge the government to protect all of Myanmar’s people and “put in place greater safeguards for their human rights and fundamental freedoms”, according to Danny Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs.

Talks on Sunday for the ASEAN Regional Forum are set to bring the regional bloc together with leading diplomats from global powers, including China, the European Union and the United States, which has touted Myanmar’s reforms as a key foreign policy success.

“Many of the Western powers have a lot invested in the Myanmar ‘successful transition story’, and issues such as the religious violence and the erosion of press freedoms place that narrative in peril,” said Sean Turnell, associate professor at Australia’s Macquarie University.

While pressure on Myanmar would probably be expressed behind closed doors, Turnell said the talks could also hand China an “in” to act as a shield to its smaller neighbour — a role it often played during the junta era.