Last December at their annual summit, the heads of Asean governments were concerned enough by Burmese foot-dragging on democratic reform that they appointed Malaysia to send a high-ranking envoy to the increasingly isolated country, to determine just what was going on. The generals who run Burma said they were too busy to receive such an envoy for the following three months, but last week said they would welcome the Asean representative.
Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar flew to Rangoon on a mission to see junta and opposition leaders. His hosts refused to let him visit the new capital, the president was still too busy to see him, democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was inaccessible because of house arrest, and the Malaysian chief diplomat was kept away from other opposition figures. With nothing much to do, Mr Syed Hamid left Rangoon a day early and, in the recent tradition of Asean, declared his visit a success.
In a way which he did not mean, he is right. Delegated by the nine other Asean members to find out what was happening in Burma, Mr Syed Hamid did that. Although few will be shocked, the Malaysian minister determined officially that Burma has grown ever more reclusive. It also has become more intolerant of the undeniably loyal opposition, nominally headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. Although the Malaysian envoy seemed almost eager to excuse his inability to see her _ “Suu Kyi is under house arrest and nobody is allowed to see her,” he said _ Burma’s leading lady has often received visitors when under house arrest in the past. Prime Minister Gen Soe Win and Foreign Minister Nyan Win received the envoy, but junta leader Senior General Than Shwe did not.
The two days of snubs to Mr Syed Hamid, and to the other nine Asean heads of government, succeeded in updating the lack of reform. Indeed, they confirmed recent reports that the Burmese generals were more violent, more anti-democracy and more dismissive of outside opinion than ever. What is unfortunate is that Mr Syed Hamid actually meant that he thought his trip had made progress. After all, Gen Soe Win assured him steps to reform were under active consideration.
Yesterday, Sen Gen Than Shwe told the armed forces the country was on the road to democracy. That speech came about 17 and a half years after the junta killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters. The Aug 8, 1988 violence brought the current junta to power. Ever since, the generals have assured the nation they were launching a programme to bring democratic rule to Burma. They also have continually told this to Asean, which as a group has swallowed this story and treated Burma as if it were a comradely country with serious aspirations to improve the lot of the nation and its people.
Mr Syed Hamid is charged now with making a report on his trip to the annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers, in Bali on April 17-18. It is time that a minister of the Malaysian’s stature spoke frankly to his counterparts, including the Burmese minister. He was asked to go to Burma on behalf of all Asean nations because the other nine members of the group were concerned that Burmese actions and policy are holding Asean back, bringing disrespect from the around the world, and causing derision when officials as high-ranking as Mr Syed Hamid claim that Burma is making progress towards democratic reform.
It is not, and it is probably past time to begin calling Rangoon on it. Last year, Asean allowed Burma to opt out of the annual rotation of being Asean chairman. This year, Asean itself needs to tell its wayward member and the world that it will no longer stand by while Burma abuses its own citizens, its neighbours and the good name of Asean. It is not even interference in Burmese affairs to demand that the country adhere to minimum standards: join the region in fighting drug and people traffickers, receive back and treat humanely its refugees, and stop arresting and putting opposition leaders in solitary imprisonment without charges. An honest report by Mr Syed Hamid could allow him to claim with a straight face that his mission was a success.