Wed 28 Oct 2009
Filed under: Opinion,Other
Normally, the Burma issue is at the core of every Asean summit, with all eyes on the Burmese delegation’s moves.
However, things appeared to be different at the recent 15th Asean summit in Cha Am/Hua Hin – Burma was not the highlight and the press had nothing to report.
The Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein was able to escape media attention and it appeared as if the issue of a country whose political process is in transition just does not matter.
The grouping, which has always taken Burma’s political issues very seriously, rarely touched upon the subject at this summit.
The chairman’s statement, issued at the end of the meeting, only said: “We underscored the importance of achieving national reconciliation and that the general elections to be held in Myanmar [Burma] in 2010 must be conducted in a fair, free, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community.”
Yet, despite all this, it appears as if Asean is seeing some positive signs, especially since the junta has been promising everyone that the elections next year would be conducted in accordance with its seven-step road map toward democracy and national reconciliation.
At a quick chat with the press after the summit on Sunday, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said his Burmese counterpart had told his Asean colleagues that detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi might be able to participate in the on-going democratisation process.
“He [Thein Sein] briefed us on some of the dialogue that is taking place and is optimistic that she [Suu Kyi] can also contribute to the process of national reconciliation,” Abhisit said.
Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said Thein Sein had used the words “free and fair” as well as it being an “inclusive” election when he was briefing the meeting.
Asean was given added hope when Suu Kyi was allowed to meet foreign diplomats over the issue of economic sanctions, and the junta also sent a minister over to engage with her recently, he said.
“I personally think it is a good sign that she might be given the chance to participate in democratising the country,” Kasit said.
Asean leaders believe the junta is taking political reform and the elections seriously, because Malaysian PM Najib Razak said Thein Sein had told him that a new parliament building was being constructed at the new Burmese capital of Nay Pyi Taw.
Constructing a parliament building may not mean democracy, but it’s a first step, Najib said.
Though Asean has been pushing Burma toward democracy and national reconciliation, the strongest contribution seems to have come from Washington, with the Obama administration shifting its policy from isolating Burma to engaging it.
Last month, the United States announced that it would seek to engage the junta, and though it is still insisting that sanctions would not be eased if there is no progress toward democracy, it is sending a rare “fact-finding” mission to Burma soon.
Asean has welcomed this move and believes that the US is following the grouping’s plans and ideas even though Washington contacted Burma directly instead of going via Asean.
Najib said engaging with the junta was the best option available, because sanctions and isolation would only worsen things.
“We are on the right track. The US has recognised the Asean way by changing its tactics,” he said.
Still, these positive signs might be just an illusion. If the Asean really doesn’t want the US to take over, then it has a lot of work to do to make sure that the political process in the junta-ruled country yields a good result.
Kasit said the grouping had offered to train Burmese officials preparing for the elections and is keen to send a team to observe the country’s first poll in two decades.
However, since the junta has still not responded to these offers, the Asean probably needs to push a little bit harder.