Burma's President Thein Sein, left, and Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen appear to have much in common when it comes to political thinking. Pic: AP.

Is Burma heading for genuine reform, or is it just following the Cambodian model? asks Daniel Quinlan

Three thousand members of civil society from across ASEAN met in Burma earlier this month to discuss human rights and development, including the record of the host country.

Not so long ago such a gathering would have been unthinkable and the event marked another symbolic step in the country’s reform process, while highlighting stalled democratization of certain neighbors.

The ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC), also known as the ASEAN People’s Forum (APF), is held each year in the country that holds the ASEAN Chairmanship. Like the ASEAN summits, it provides an opportunity to discuss regional concerns and local views and experiences, albeit from a less lofty perspective.

Despite being monitored by Burma’s infamous special branch, participants were allowed to meet and discuss a host of issues that remain extremely sensitive both in Burma and across the region. The fact that participants were allowed to meet unhindered is in itself worthy of praise.

While the event itself is another symbolic example of Burma’s reform process, many of the issues brought up by local participants indicated just how far it still has to go on its road to democratic reform. Land grabbing and sexual abuse, not to mention a 60-year civil war, were just some of the local issues yet to properly addressed by government.

For local activists it was an opportunity to meet colleagues from around the region for the first time in a country long synonymous with political repression.

The meeting also highlighted another county’s failure to reform. In 2012, 19 years after the UN sponsored elections, Cambodia hosted its own ACSC/APF meet, an event that was to become symbolic of the failings of its democratic reforms. The government refused to allow discussions on land issues – or, ironically, Burma’s land issues – to take place. They pressured hotels and conference rooms to cancel events and even cut the electricity to one venue.

The brutal crackdown earlier this year on protesting garment workers after an sometimes violent election marred by allegations of fraud has only highlighted Cambodia’s democratic shortcomings and provided unfavorable comparisons.

One of the participants, returning from this year’s event, Rong Panha, an officer from the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions said, “it’s great that we can share and have discussions on finding strategies related to human rights issues amongst ASEAN countries”.

But referring to the crackdown earlier this year he warned Cambodia could end up “far behind Myanmar [Burma] as they are on their way to fast reform on their democratic journey.”

A report released two days after the end of the conference highlights some of the shared ground between the two countries.

From 2000 to 2013, Burma’s forests were relieved of some US$8 billion worth of timber which left the country through illegal and illegal trade, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). US$5.7 billion of that remains off the government books, raising serious questions over who is benefiting from the 22.8 million cubic meters of wood Burma has lost.

Land grabs continue to devastate urban and poor rural communities in both countries as the environment is stripped of its natural wealth.

Media reports of riots from Rakhine State in Burma last week again drew attention to another issue that offers reasons for serious concern: inter-communal violence. While inter-communal tensions in Cambodia have been simmering for years, in Burma they have exploded with worrying consistency throughout the reform period, resulting in the murder of some 240 people and the displacement of 140,000 since June 2012.

The issue remains the largest elephant in the room of Burma’s reforms and one that local activists are struggling to come to terms with. The fact that the issue was not brought up at the conference is an indication that it’s not only governments that have problems addressing certain issues.

Aid workers, seen as biased towards the country’s besieged Muslim and Rohingya minorities, were targeted by Buddhist-led mobs last week and were  holed up in the police station in the regional capital of Sittwe.

Just before one of Burma’s first highly symbolic moments, its 2012 bi-elections, an ex-political prisoner and member of the student group the 88 generation joked he hoped they would not follow the Cambodian model of democratization.

Unfortunately, Hun Sen’s 29 years in power have not gone unnoticed. His example of taking millions in aid while promising reforms year after year – all the while using brutal repression and overseeing a state of epic corruption – raises serious questions about how seriously Western governments engage with reform. The ‘reformers’ that have brought ‘disciplined democracy’ to Burma owe far more of their political thinking to Hun Sen than Thomas Paine. Democracy activists and civil society in either country are unlikely to run out of work any time soon.