If Asean’s policy of constructive engagement with Burma is measured by the extent of economic penetration by Asean businessmen, then it amounts to a resounding success. There is certainly more construction than engagement. A Singapore information-technology company last month announced that it had won a multi-million dollar contract to expand Yangon International Airport. A Malaysian company headed by a former diplomat and a  Thai conglomerate controlled by powerful politicians have both secured even larger contracts from the Burmese government. With more than $1.5 billion worth of projects up for grabs, it should come as no surprise that investors and entrepreneurs from member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are falling over each other to “engage” the military junta. 

Asean’s policy of constructive engagement has become a euphemism for a multilateral scam to milk an already impoverished nation. The irony couldn’t be more tragic. This is a country endowed with natural resources-oil and gas, the best teak in the world, abundant precious stones such as jade, rubies and sapphires. Yet more than half of her population lives in extreme poverty. 

In theory, constructive engagement” with Burma is simple enough. It is essentially non-interference in her internal affairs coupled with a supposedly altruistic concern for her socioeconomic wellbeing. Rather than isolating Burma from the rest of Southeast Asia, the policy is supposed to engage and gradually integrate her into Asean. This is the so-called “Asean way.” The ultimate aim, though it is never made an explicit condition, is supposed to be to encourage the junta to introduce political reform and start down the path toward democracy. 

In reality, this approach has taken on the status of a religious dogma so sacrosanct that it is sacrilegious for anyone to propose otherwise. For instance, when I called on Asean to adopt a policy of “constructive intervention” in July 1997, particularly in dealing with issues of democracy and human rights, it was considered diplomatic blasphemy. I had tried to persuade Asean to accept the reality that admitting new members such as Burma would lead to a host of new problems. 

Instead Burma was admitted unconditionally, and accorded all the benefits and privileges that come with Asean membership. Emboldened by its membership, the junta proceeded to tighten its repressive rule by launching a campaign of mass arrests against Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters. Eight years later, On the contrary, repression continues with impunity. Thousands of prisoners of conscience are still denied their civil liberties, and constructive engagement continues to be invoked as an excuse to turn a blind eye to corruption, oppression and gross violations of human rights. 

Proponents of constructive engagement come heavily armed. There is the stock reply that the imposition of sanctions will only hurt ordinary Burmese. Geopolitically, it seems a strategy of isolating Burma would be counterproductive as the West would lose any influence it may have over Burma and drive her straight into the arms of China. 

But it is now evident that constructive engagement has not only failed to bring about democratization, but was never seriously intended to encourage any move in this direction. Instead, as far as Asean is concerned, the policy amounts to a subconscious manifestation of collective guilt. It was former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who made an unashamed endorsement of dictatorship, in response to Western criticism of political oppression and human rights violations. It might have been a Freudian slip, but responding to criticism of Burma‘s human-rights record in 1997 he said, “discrimination against Burma is discrimination against Asean.” 

There are clear lessons to be drawn from Indonesia‘s experience since the fall of Suharto. Its rapid emergence as a new democratic nation in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis gives the lie to the excuse that democracy can not develop overnight. And the will of the people of Burma shouldn’t be any less resolute. In spite of risks to life and limb, thousands continue to fight the oppression and the tyranny of dictatorship. 

Asean has been pussyfooting around for far too long. It is in the organization’s own interests that its leaders shift away from the Cold War mindset that existed at its inception in 1967, and reinvent Asean according to the spirit of the times nearly four decades later. Radical changes must be instituted to make the leap to democracy in Burma and constructive intervention is just the first step in this direction. 

Mr. Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, is now a distinguished senior fellow at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.