Human Rights Now!, SDP, 18 Nov 2007

As ASEAN opened its 13th Summit at the Shangri La, about 130 people attended a forum organized by SG Human Rights held at a local hotel this afternoon. Most attendees wore red to demonstrate solidarity with the people of Burma. The organizers had anticipated a larger turnout, especially from the Burmese nationals. However, some Burmese attendees reported that the police had earlier approached them to dissuade them from attending the forum, and even offered them a paid party at Sentosa as an alternative.

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One of the purposes of the forum is to gather signatures for two petitions, which will be delivered afterward, via the ASEAN Secretariat, to the Singapore and Burma member states respectively.

The first petition called on the Singapore Government, among other things, to respect the rights of Singaporeans, and to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The other, in the form of a giant greeting card with the image of Ms Aung Sung Suu Kyi, allowed signatories to scribble messages as they pleased.

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In between speeches, several letters of support from around the world for the efforts of Sg Human Rights were read. Senders included the Member of the European Parliament for South West England and Gibraltar and Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament, Mr Graham Watson; the Coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, Ms Debbie Stothard; the Chairman and Secretary-General of the Swedish International Liberal Centre, Mr Lennart Nordfors and Ms Gunilla Davidsson, respectively; the Secretary of International Society for Human Rights (Australia), Mr John Launder; and the Minister of Security of Tibet, Mr Pema C Khangtetsang. According to the organizers, more than a hundred letters had poured in over the last one week.

Speakers at the forum included last year’s general election candidate Mr Chia Ti Lik, civil rights activist and blogger, Mr. Ng E-Jay, human rights lawyer, Mr M. Ravi, and the Secretary-general of SDP, Dr Chee Soon Juan.

Moderator and speaker Mr Chia decried the Government’s influence in the hampering of human rights development in Singapore. Noting the already dismal human rights record of Singapore, Mr Chia asked if Singaporeans wished to wait till our situation degenerated to that of Burma before we regretted not having insisted on the restoration of our fundamental liberties.

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Touching on fundamental rights such the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly, Mr Ng, stressed the importance for Singaporeans to take ownership of such rights, and not be distracted by economic want or progress. He lamented the vagueness of the ASEAN Charter on human rights issues and processes, and called on ASEAN to cease making empty promises and to take concrete measures in promoting democracy.

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Dr Chee Soon Juan urged audience to do their part, no matter how small, in getting ASEAN to take genuine actions toward forcing the Burmese military junta to resolve the Burmese tragedy. He recounted his conversation with Daw Aung Sung Suu Kyi a few years ago and remembered her parting request to never forget Burma.

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The lively Q&A time saw a barrage of questions and comments from the floor. (See below for a summary of the issues brought up and the general view from both the audience and the speakers) The forum ended with a Burmese song of democracy and the release of 10 red balloons symbolizing the 10 member states of ASEAN.

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Summary of issues raised during Q&A

On whether sanction against Burma will work

The consensus was that if every country plays its part, sanction would work. However, the current situation is that countries such as China, India and Singapore are continuing to ignore calls for sanction. Someone observed that as Singaporeans, while there is little we can do in regards to China and India, we can certainly pressure the Singapore Government to heed the international calls for sanction instead of offering lame excuses such as selling only “arms that cannot be used against citizens.”

On how Singaporeans can help Burmese who are intimidated by the police

Revealing the identity of the intimidating officers and their questions through blogging, and sharing such information with Singaporeans can discourage the police from stepping out of line and clarify for the Burmese nationals what is acceptable and what is “over-reacting” (à la Ho Peng Kee) on the part of the police. Consulting legal advice and initiating legal challenges were among the suggestions as well.

On students’ participation in politics

During a previous attempt by NUS students to show solidarity with the Burmese people, university officials told them that participation in politics is not a university culture. Students now raised questions at the forum whether the culture of a university should be created and cultivated by students or the government. Comments included the fact that it hasn’t been that way all along. In the past, even in Singapore, the universities had been the bedrock of political activism until the Lee government began to dictate what activities can or cannot be engaged in.

On the cooperation of civil society organizations (CSOs)

A member of the audience called for unity among CSOs and for them to include both non-government organizations (NGOs) and government organized non-government organizations (GONGOs). Members of Sg Human Rights replied that they would be happy to work with GONGOs so long as they (the GONGOs) do not insist on who should or should not be represented and what issues should or should not be raised. Unfortunately, that has not been their experience with GONGOs.