What Does Myanmar Student Protests Mean for ASEAN?

 Feature - Myanmar Student

Rizky Alif Alvian and Tadzkia Nurshafira

Board of Chairman and Head of Advocacy Committee at the Student Council of Faculty of Social and Politicial Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada

Justice is at stake in Burma. Two weeks ago, hundreds of student activists were detained by security forces for protesting the new National Education Law this month. Waves of solidarity has been sent to Burma as well as critics to the newly semi–democratic government to end the repression for student protest in the country. It is now a moment for student activists across ASEAN to share supports and solidarity for Myanmar students for their rights to participate in the decision-making processes, particularly in education.

The repression of student protest in Burma poses a challenge for the regional economic integration that has been planned by all ASEAN member states since 2003. What is happening now in Burma will not only harm the internal development of economic integration in the region but also prop up to some agreements regarding the establishment of ASEAN Community.

The Neglected Issue: Human Rights and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community

Flashed back to the moment when ASEAN Leaders ratified the Bali Concord II (2003) and the Cebu Declaration (2007), ASEAN leaders acknowledged that all of the member states have been admitted “..to realize an integrated, stable, knowledgeable, and caring community in order to strengthen their economic competitiveness…’ [1] The ASEAN Charter (2009) also acknowledge participation and people-oriented ASEAN in order to make sure that all of integration process benefit all elements in the society.

However, we have also witnessed a fact that almost all workshops, trainings, and seminars regarding the ASEAN Community were only focusing the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Aimed to increase people’s consiousness and knowledge instantly about ASEAN, these serials of workshops and seminars have neglected two other pillars in the ASEAN Community, particularly the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). It is ironic because the ASCC is the most important pillar to maintain cohesivity and justice in the community. The neglection of ASCC in ASEAN discussions will lead to neglection of many problems related to social justice and conflict in the region.

Therefore, it is important for us to take a deeper look to Myanmar student protests. So far the protests have shown close connections with ASEAN integration project in social and cultural pillars. Even though all ASEAN member states have already signed the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, we still witness the violation of student’s rights to participate and express their political interests peacefully in the decision making process in a states which now should have promoted the value of democracy. This problem poses a question whether ASEAN member state’s commitment towards ASEAN Community establishment is still preserved or not___specifically for the protection of human rights which is embodied clearly in ASCC.

The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) has basically established to realise an ASEAN Community that is people-centred and socially responsible by forging an inclusive, harmonious, and common identity[2]ASCC has two basic concerns regarding the Human Rights: Human Development and Social Justice[3].

According to the Blueprint of ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, ASEAN shall provide an equitable access to the opportunities of human development by investing education in many methods. This point is aimed to maximize efforts in enhancing the quality of human resources. In this context, the term ‘access’ should be taken into account. The blueprint does not clearly mentioned the meaning of ‘access’ in terms of higher education. Instead, the document only mentioned that ‘people shall get all of their rights only when they are able to start participating in some levels of education”.

Nevertheless, the concept of ‘access’ should not only understood merely as opportunities to enter or enjoy educational facilities, but also to involve the whole processes education, including participation in decision-making processes. An access without rights to participate in every processes is not enough to ensure human development in ASEAN.

Samuel Ku (2011) stated that this concern means that society must be engaged in providing inputes for policy choices, including the educational policy. [4] Therefore, rights to ‘access’ in terms of participation in decision-making processes as well as ‘access’ to education regardless economic ability shall also taken into consideration in understanding Human Development in ASEAN. It is quite inappropriate for the state to deny any potential from students t to think, supervise, and evaluate any educational policy in the country

Besides that, social justice and rights has also been mentioned as one of the pillar in the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. This point is committed to ensure social justice as well as to mainstream people’s equal rights in every social aspect, including the rights and welfare of disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalised group such as women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and migrant workers.[5] There are some important points that shall be noted by all ASEAN member states, including; (1) ASEAN state members will definetely support any efforts to enforce the fulfillment of human rights in all levels, (2) the targeted people are all elements of society whose rights are taken by the other, (3) the efforts must be compatible with the policy in each states member

These points shall be reconsidered by the States in dealing with student protests, including what has been happened in Myanmar. A more progressive approach that consider Human Rights principles shall be undertaken by Myanmar government in dealing with their student’s demands on democratic education in the country.

The Importance of Solidarity

But what was happening in Myanmar apparently shown the opposite trends. With the repressive and violent acts, Myanmar’s commitment as ASEAN member state is now at stake. As stated in the blueprint, ASCC aimed to protect an equitable access towards human development. In Myanmar student protest, student’s demands for access to education as well as participation in decision making process shall be dealt with peaceful approach by the Government.

What is at stake here is Myanmar Government’s responses to the protests. Government must take a high stake to student’s capability of thinking and evaluating, as well as their potentials in maintaining democracy and development in the country. Thus, it is important to note that violence is not the way to resolve student protests in Myanmar. Instead violent and repressive act will only prevent Myanmar’s inclusion to ASEAN Community.

Repressive acts undertaken by Myanmar government will only harm Myanmar’s progress towards ASEAN Community. For ASEAN, this case means that progress of democratization and human rights protection that was endorsed by ASEAN shall be strengthened in regonal level. The task to strengthen human rights and democratization lies not only to Myanmar government, but also to all ASEAN member states.

It will be such a contradiction if ASEAN try to show its regional governance capacity by establishing economic liberalization through ASEAN Economic Community while at the same time put the Human Rights problem away from the dialogue. In the name of humanity and people-oriented regionalism, ASEAN must embolden some efforts to show commitment to their values in protecting student’s rights in politics.

The Student Council of Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada, has expressed a solidarity for Myanmar students in an open letter. Therefore, we urge all ASEAN leaders to take all necessary action to ensure that this problem can be resolved by Myanmar Government as soon as possible.

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[1]Shaun Narine, “Forty Years of ASEAN: A Historical Review,” The Pacific Review 21.4 (2008): 418

[2]ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint, p 1.

[3]Ibid, p 3.

[4]Samual C.Y. Ku, ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community: Development and Prospect, presented at International Conference on ASEAN Vision 2015: Moving Towards One Community, held by Taiwan ASEAN Studies Center, Taipei, May 24 2011

[5]Mid-Term Review on ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community