Fri 29 Jul 2005
Filed under: News,Opinion
The issue of Burma’s scheduled chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2006 has preoccupied the member governments, in the face of international pressure to force Rangoon to stand down
Rangoon stunned Asia and the international community earlier this week when it declined the regional bloc’s chairmanship in 2006 at the foreign ministers’ summit in the Lao capital Vientiane.
In a well-orchestrated campaign designed to keep everyone guessing until the last moment, Rangoon managed to get everything it wanted to be left alone to carry out political reform inside the country in its own time.
But in the past week, two senior Asian politicians, Timor Leste’s (East
Timor) Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta and Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Dr Surakiart Sathirathai have been on peace missions to Burma, while Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing made a one-day visit to Rangoon yesterday when he met the junta’s top leaders and discussed the regime’s planned political and economic reform.
For months, the issue of Burma’s scheduled chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2006 has preoccupied the member governments in the face of international pressure, especially from the European Union and the United States, to force Rangoon to stand down because of the lack of political progress and the continued detention of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. They threatened to boycott future Asean meetings if Rangoon was allowed to take its turn at the helm of the regional organisation.
In the days before the Asean foreign ministers were due to meet, Mr Horta’s initiative was probably the most dramatic attempt to break the political impasse.
Although ostensibly in Burma to discuss opening an embassy in Rangoon and the junta’s attitude to East Timor’s desire to join Asean, the Nobel Peace Prize winner took the opportunity to try to see his fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The pro-democracy leader is currently under house arrest. She is effectively in solitary confinement. For more than a year now, the regime has refused to allow her any visitors, apart from her doctor who sees her for a monthly medical check.
Mr Horta, of course, was also told the time was not right to see her, according to Asian diplomats. But they did agree to allow him to send her a letter.
In the letter, Mr Horta urged Aung San Suu Kyi to publicly condemn international sanctions as they were only hurting the average Burmese citizen. He also advised her to stand down as secretary-general of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and offer her services to the generals as a national figure rather than an opposition leader.
Mr Horta believes Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in Burma’s political future could be like that of the South African leader and Nobel laureate, Nelson Mandela, after he was released from prison, according to senior Asian diplomats in Vientiane.
He also wrote to the junta’s top general, Than Shwe, urging him to release Aung San Suu Kyi as soon as possible, and to offer her a role in the political process as a national leader.
This approach is not new. Many top pro-democracy activists have advised Aung San Suu Kyi to adopt the “Nelson Mandela role” in the past.
Months after the pro-democracy leader was released from house arrest the last time in May 2002, the leaders of the Kachin ceasefire group, the KIO, also urged her to resign from the NLD and play a role as a national leader representing all the Burmese, including the national minorities, according to a senior ethnic community leader.
Mr Horta has resurrected this idea because he feels a fresh approach is needed to break the current political deadlock in Burma, according to sources close to East Timor’s foreign minister.
They say he has long wanted to be a mediator or envoy between the military regime and Aung San Suu Kyi.
However, Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the junta, is unlikely to heed Mr Horta’s appeals as the regime is committed to carrying out its own seven-point road map announced in August 2003 by the prime minister, Khin Nyunt, who has since been sentenced to 44 years’ imprisonment for bribery and corruption.
The Chinese foreign minister, is more likely to have some influence on the junta’s thinking.
Beijing has been Rangoon’s staunchest ally since the military seized power 17 years ago.
But China does see the need for Burma to introduce significant political and economic reform.
In stark contrast to the Western strategy of international pressure and sanctions, Beijing’s approach is support and encouragement.
Burma recently released more than 200 political prisoners, the largest ever single release of pro-democracy activists, a week after Burmese Prime Minister Gen Soe Win met his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao in Kunming and discussed Burma’s political future.
The Chinese premier pledged Beijing’s support for Rangoon taking its place as the chairman of Asean next year, according to Chinese government officials.
Now that they have skipped their turn, the Burmese government will concentrate on its national reconciliation process and democratisation, Burma’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win told his Asean counterparts at the summit in Laos.
Beijing is now offering to support the junta’s plans for the future and seems to believe it is privy to what is in the pipeline.
“The National Convention will have drawn up a new constitution by the end of the year and it will be put to a referendum in early 2006,” said a senior Chinese diplomat.
New elections are likely to be held after Thingyan _ the Buddhist New Year _ and could be as early as next May, according to a senior ethnic community leader from northern Burma.
Beijing believes Gen Than Shwe will stand down next year and become the civilian president. “He wants to be president for life,” a senior military source close to him said.
The No. 3 in the regime, Gen Thura Shwe Mann, is scheduled to take over as head of the army and replace Than Shwe as head of the junta.
When that time comes, he would grant a mass amnesty to all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Khin Nyunt, and the former military intelligence officers who were recently sentenced to hundreds of years in prison for corruption and economic crimes, according to Asian diplomats.
“China was keen to have Burma as the Asean chairman as they believed this would make it easier for them to increase their presence and influence in the region,” said Win Min, an independent Burmese analyst based in Chiang Mai.
For Beijing, Rangoon remains a significant ally in Southeast Asia and the visit of the Chinese foreign minister is intended to strengthen their bilateral ties.
The Chinese are already expanding and refurbishing Rangoon’s airport, doubling its size, ready for when Burma does become the chairman of Asean. Architectural designs for a new massive convention centre in Rangoon, also to be built by the Chinese, have now been approved. Many diplomats believe this is also part of the preparations for Burma’s future chairmanship of Asean. Burma may have skipped its turn now, but Rangoon is likely to take the chairmanship of Asean in 2007, according to senior Asean officials attending the Vientiane meeting.
The announcement on Tuesday was suitably vague, simply stating that Burma would take its turn at the appropriate time, but this is a thinly disguised diplomatic ploy to deflect criticism and pressure on the organisation for as long as possible.
Above everything else, the Asean governments fear a repeat of what happened in the Lao capital. No one knew till the last minute what Rangoon had decided. Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) made its final decision at a meeting on Monday.
After the foreign minister arrived in Vientiane, he refused to disclose the Burmese position at the Asean ministers’ informal dinner that evening.
Only at the ministers’ retreat the following morning did he relay Gen Than Shwe’s decision _ just hours before Asean had to formally announce who would be the chair in 2006.
But for Asean, the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi remains a major embarrassment.
Two years ago, the foreign ministers’ meeting in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh demanded her immediate release, a little more than a month after the pro-democracy leader had been detained following a brutal attack on her car by pro-government thugs as she was travelling in the north of the country.
The UN envoy Razali Ismail politely reminded the Asean ministers of this when he met several of them in Vientiane earlier this week.
“The Indonesian, Singaporean and Thai foreign ministers were apparently embarrassed, but did not really respond,” said a diplomat who knows the envoy well.
“By postponing their turn as the chairman of Asean in 2006, the junta has allowed Asean off the hook,” said a Western diplomat in Bangkok who deals with Burma.
The issue now is to find ways where Europe and Asia can work together to secure meaningful change in Burma, according to a European diplomat who covers Burma. Burma has little intention of allowing Mr Razali back into Burma any time soon. The Burmese foreign minister snubbed the envoy’s efforts to see him, after Mr Razali flew to Laos on Sunday to specifically meet the Burmese minister.
Clearly, Rangoon believes it now has the support of Asean and can ignore the United Nations. The UN’s next move appears to be to try to arrange a visit to Rangoon by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Senior Gen Than Shwe invited Mr Annan when they met in Jakarta earlier this year. But UN officials need certain guarantees before Mr Annan contemplates any trip to Rangoon. He would need to be sure that he would see both Gen Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Burma’s ethnic leaders strongly support the proposed visit. Even the NLD supports it _ with two provisos: that the UN secretary-general is allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and the visit takes place before the National Convention reconvenes in November, according to senior opposition sources.
So even for the UN, the window of opportunity is limited. And the fear is that buoyed by their successful handling of Asean, Burma’s top generals will simply continue to rebuff international efforts to encourage a national reconciliation process that also includes the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.