Asean’s impotence has been exposed once again, this time by its failure to find common ground on Burma
Asean did what it does best at its meeting of foreign ministers in Bali last week: engage in yet another bout of rhetoric, posturing and manoeuvring that generates a lot of hot air and precious little action. It is a game Asean has played for as long as anyone can remember, but its pitiful attempt to persuade Burma’s repressive military junta to restore democracy in that tortured country is conspicuous for the absence of real progress there after more than a decade of trying.
At the end of two days of talks by the group’s foreign ministers last week, Asean decided not to bring additional pressure to bear on the Burmese government, in order to give Rangoon some breathing space to implement national reconciliation and democratisation the way it sees fit. Adoption such a “wait and see” attitude is typical Asean, particularly at a time like now, when there is a dearth of new ideas and a lot of frustration with the way the junta has stonewalled international pressure.
A deep sense of embarrassment was evident when it became clear Asean had failed to find common ground on what further steps to take to convince or compel the brutal Burmese dictators to treat their own people better. Burma has been a continuous thorn in Asean’s side, because it has exposed the regional grouping’s impotence in regard to its serious shortage of new initiatives.
In quintessential diplomatic doublespeak, Thai caretaker Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said the group expected to see “evidence of concrete progress” in the short term, adding that there was a certain time-frame – which he did not specify – against which Asean would gauge progress or the lack thereof in Burma.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, in his capacity as Asean’s special envoy to Rangoon, expressed dissatisfaction with what he saw during his recent fact-finding mission to Burma. He was prevented from meeting pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other key “stakeholders” in Burmese politics.
Syed Hamid told reporters at the end of the meeting in Bali last Thursday that differences over Burma were dividing Asean members. Despite this, the Malaysian reportedly told his Asean counterparts he did see some positive developments in the military-ruled country.
For example, the junta is in the process of drafting a constitution. This will be followed by a referendum to decide whether the proposed new charter is acceptable to the Burmese people before a “free and fair” general election is held to pave the way for a democratically elected government to run the country.
Syed Hamid voiced his confidence that the constitution-drafting process would be concluded within two years. So it could sound as if there might actually be something positive for Asean to look forward to. But, as everyone knows, there is no guarantee that any of this will happen. Similar wishful thinking has been used by Asean as a fall-back position too many times before, with virtually nothing positive coming of it and Asean exposed to ridicule by the international community.
Previously, Asean tried collective “constructive engagement” to try to persuade Rangoon to reform. When that failed, the grouping encouraged individual members to engage Burma bilaterally. It has yet to be seen if this more flexible approach will work as intended.
Asean reiterated its position, calling on Rangoon to release Aung San Suu Kyi unconditionally and strictly follow to its road map to democracy.
It is interesting to note that the lack of progress in Burma has been met by a sense of resignation and apathy among Asean members instead of an acute sense of urgency and need for fresh initiatives.
Syed Hamid’s findings on the situation in Burma was bad enough, but the disappointing news from the meeting itself was much worse. It is ironic that a regional organisation that aspires to the coveted status of “global player” taken seriously by the international community, fails to take itself seriously.