Tue 20 Dec 2005
Filed under: News,Opinion
â€œHelp us, help youâ€ has become the dictum that epitomises the painful relations between Asean and its pariah member, Burma. After many hours of discussions, senior Asean officials agreed at their summit this month in Kuala Lumpur to increase the pressure on Burma. It was the first time that Asean had been so assertive towards one of its members.
Although Burma was admitted in 1997, it has never voluntarily shared meaningful information concerning its domestic developments with other Asean members. Normally Asean members brief each other on important developments in their countries at their leisure as a confidence-building measure.
Burma has failed to reciprocate the consistent assistance and support that Asean has extended to the country. Such resistance runs counter to the cooperative relations between other Asean countries. When Burma needed support, the junta leaders came to Asean for protection.
After that they ignored Asean as if the grouping didn’t exist. This pattern of behaviour has upset some Asean leaders. At the summit Asean leaders, especially those from the core Asean members, concluded that they could no longer tolerate the military junta’s complacency.
So they quite readily agreed that they needed to know more about Burma if Asean was to be in a position to help Burma to cope with its many challenges. They complained they had not been informed beforehand of the junta’s moving the Burmese capital from Rangoon to Pyinmana. They said it was shame that as a member of the Asean family Burma had not informed anyone about such an important event. Some of members of the Burmese delegation later told Asean officials in private that even they had been kept in the dark.
Even Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the staunchest supporter of Burma among Asean members, expressed his dissatisfaction with the country’s secretiveness when speaking to Thai reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
â€œThey did not inform me about the move to the new capital,â€ he said, adding that he would not be speaking out to defend Burma as frequently as he had. Thaksin used to brag about how he had been given advance knowledge of Burma’s domestic developments. Thaksin met Prime Minister Soe Win at a summit meeting in Bangkok in early November, three days before the new capital was announced. The Burmese guest did not divulge a word.
It took a battle of wits and will before Asean leaders finally got Burma to agree to the establishment of an Asean fact-finding team to go to Burma. Before they agreed on this option – it will be headed by the Asean chair, Malaysia – two other options were discussed and discarded. The first one was to have all Asean foreign ministers visit Rangoon to gather first-hand information.
That was ruled out as it probably would have created a logistical nightmare. The other idea was to dispatch to Rangoon a troika comprising the past, current and future chairpersons of Asean. Politically, the idea was dangerous: a similar proposal from Thailand had been shot down by Burma in 2000. In 2001 Vietnam, as the Asean chair, also rejected the idea. The Asean leaders finally agreed on the Malaysia-led delegation. After some initial recalcitrance, Soe Win welcomed the idea. The visit is tentatively scheduled for January 4, which marks the 57th anniversary of Burma’s independence.
The plan to send a fact-finding team to Burma comes at a time when the grouping has been hard pressed by a deeper sense of guilt and hopelessness.
Two domestic developments have brought on this urgency: the six-month extension of the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition party, has made the grouping look really bad in the eyes of the international community. Last year, former Burmese foreign minister Win Aung informed Asean that Suu Kyi would be released in April. This, of course, didn’t happen.
Worse, Burma’s creditability dipped further when the implementation of the seven-point road map to democracy was delayed. The planned completion of constitutional drafting, national referendum and electoral process has dragged on and now has been extended beyond 2006.
Asean expects Burma to produce concrete results on the issue of national reconciliation next year. Otherwise it will be difficult for Burma to assume chairmanship of Asean.
Asean has said that when Burma is ready, it can take up the chair, but in light of Burma’s recalcitrance, this will be hard, and Asean has yet to establish criteria for determining when Burma can be deemed â€œreadyâ€. This leaves room for Asean to reject Burma’s superficial democratisation. This will give further ammunition to the Eminent Persons Group, which has been asked to complete the Asean Charter by the end of next year.
During their deliberations, if there proves to be no tangible progress in Burma, the drafters will be forced to consider more stringent rules and principles that member countries will be expected to abide by.
If Burma continues to show stubbornness, the charter can be written with guidelines on how to suspend or expel an unruly Asean member. Issues regarding reasonable responsibilities for members, in line with elements from the UN charter and relevant international instruments and bills of rights, would be given due consideration in drafting the Asean charter.
Whether they like it or not, the progress in Burma or the lack thereof will serve as a most critical issue for the drafters of the charter and will set the tone of their consultation. The future of Asean and the substance of its charter are inevitably tied to Burma’s domestic development.