Asian Politicians Tackle Burma Transition, Climate Change

August 6, 2013 9:18 am Published by Leave your thoughts


CALD is known for spearheading discussions on the most timely and relevant issues in the Asian region and beyond.

True to this tradition, members of this foremost regional political party network convened in Bangkok, Thailand on 16-19 November 2012 for the back-to-back events dealing with climate change and Burma’s political transition.

Uncertainty: this was the word used by the keynote speaker, Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, to connect the themes of the two events. “Uncertainty, whether we like it or not, is just part of our lives, and increasingly so, whether it is a natural phenomenon…with human contribution such as climate change and its effects, as well as political uncertainties [such as] democratic transitions… which unsurprisingly, in a world of rapid changes, is likely to arise not just in countries moving towards democracy but also in established democracies…”

The Climate Change Seminar tackled successful cases of climate change adaptation and disaster preparedness in Asia. The seminar was facilitated by CALD Secretary General and Philippine Presidential Adviser on Environmental Protection Dr. Neric Acosta, who, in his introduction, focused on the concept of “ecological overshoot.” “Humanity is simply demanding more than the earth can provide”, he said. He then laid down the core dilemma in the economy-environment nexus, “What happens when an infinite-growth economy runs into a finite planet?”

Three distinguished resource persons were invited to share their thoughts on this fundamental question. Environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa elaborated on the dynamics between environment and development, and emphasized the need to change mindsets to promote the conservation, protection and restoration (CPR) of the environment. He also pointed out how the law and education could be used to address climate change, highlighting in particular the initiatives “Global Legal Action on Climate Change” and “School of the SEA.”

Dr. Jerry Velasquez, Senior Regional Coordinator of UN International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Asia-Pacific Office in Thailand, shared the findings of the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2012, particularly the lessons on how to reduce vulnerability and exposure to disasters. He argued that there is a need to re-evaluate the basic understanding of disaster risks, to intensify and broaden vulnerability reduction, to focus on enabling development strategies that reduce exposure, and to promote a direct approach to reduce disaster risks. Finally, UNISDR Champion for Making Cities Resilient, Vice Mayor Alfredo Arquillano from the Philippines, shared the best practice of his municipality, which he called the “Safran Camotes Approach.” He described this as a practical approach in building climate change adaptability at the local level, which includes measures from eco-waste management to creation of environmental law enforcers group.

After the half-day climate change seminar, the participants attended the Democratic Transitions Conference with the theme “Managing Burma’s Political Transition: The Challenges Ahead.” The conference was divided into four sessions covering the most crucial issue-areas in transitional polities: (1) crafting a political pact between competing forces; (2) building democratic institutions and the rule of law; (3) forging ethnic harmony and a democratic union; and (4) encouraging “democracy- and human rights-friendly” investments and environmental protection.

After the welcome remarks of CALD Chair Sam Rainsy and Democrat Party (DP) of Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Chair Kiat Sitheeamorn, the first session featured legislators Dr. Myo Aung and Mr. Sin Chung-kai from National League for Democracy of Burma (NLD) and Democratic Party of Hong Kong respectively. Dr. Myo started his presentation by tackling the transition and contextual problems that Burma is now facing. On the topic of the session, he said, “NLD presently is not considering a formal pact with any party [or political force]… however, this is not to be excluded in future policy.” Mr. Sin, on the other hand, approached the topic by looking at the operation of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo). While he noted that there had been small successes in making LegCo more democratic and inclusive, he pointed out that the influence of China remains to be a stumbling block in Hong Kong’s transition to democracy.

In the second session, speakers from Burma, Thailand and Singapore shared their thoughts on establishing democratic institutions and the rule of law. Mr. U Naing Ngan Lin of NLD addressed the issue straightforwardly by saying that “…in order to promote sustainable development, public participation, transparency and accountability and also in order to uphold the rule of law, [democratic] institutions still require to be strengthened. In strengthening these institutions, capacity building training, workshops, seminars and the like are necessary.” DP’s Director General Nataphol Teepsuwan turned the issue to its head by pointing out that institutions and the law could also be used against democracy, particularly by persecuting the political opposition such as what is happening now in Thailand. The session was concluded by Dr. James Gomez, Policy Unit Head of Singapore Democratic Party, who, after looking at the challenges to building democratic institutions and the rule of law in his country, tackled the role of civil society organizations in the development of nascent ASEAN human rights regime.

The third session featured speakers with first-hand experience on peace negotiations and peace-building. Member of Burma’s peace negotiation panel Mr. Nyo Ohn Myint updated the participants on the progress of peace negotiations with Burma’s ethnic groups, which have been taking place for the past 11 months. Undersecretary Chito Gascon, member of the Technical Working Group on Power Sharing in the Philippine peace negotiations, shared some lessons learnt in the ongoing peace talks between the Government of Republic of the Philippines-Moro Islamic Liberation Front (GRP-MILF). He ended by saying that ethnic conflict is an issue that should be addressed head on because it is ultimately “a hindrance to development, a hindrance to social inclusion, and a hindrance to democracy itself.” In his discussion of the Sri Lankan case, Sri Lankan Presidential Adviser on Reconciliation Rajiva Wijesinha argued that the solution to the problem of ethnic conflicts lies on a basic Liberal principle: “the idea that society consists of individuals, and theories of governance should be based on the welfare of individuals, not particular interest groups.”

Political economy and environmental protection was the topic of the last session, where Professor Kuang-Jung Hsu of Taiwan made a presentation on the link between democracy and environmental movements in Taiwan, as well as on cases (nuclear power and waste/petrochemical projects) which manifested the dynamics amongst the government, political parties and civil society organizations in the formulation, implementation and revision of environmental policies.

The sessions were capped by a synthesis of Dr. Wijesinha, who argued that democracy should be at the front and center of climate change and political transition issues. As he aptly put it, “Democracy after all is not about governments, it is rather about the governed. Political parties therefore must …enhance the power of individuals to make decisions. Better understanding of the needs of others is vital …but so too is awareness of the consequences of the decisions we make.” CALD Chair Sam Rainsy officially closed the seminar/conference by conveying his wish that the back-to-back events would hopefully “make us better equip in our country, in our region, regarding climate change and democratic transition.”

He also enjoined CALD to continue its revered tradition of discussing the most relevant and most provocative themes in its annual conferences; for this has been most helpful not only to CALD members, but also to the broader cause of democracy and freedom in the region and beyond.

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The Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) was inaugurated in Bangkok in 1993, with the support of then Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and South Korea’s Kim Dae-Jung. CALD, which offers a unique platform for dialogue and cooperation, is the only regional alliance of liberal and democratic political parties in Asia.
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