Thu 4 Aug 2011
Filed under: Opinion,Other
Despite mounting criticism of the new Burmese government’s do-nothing approach to political reform (and growing evidence that it is merely a front for the brutal military junta that preceded it), Burma’s rulers continue to covet the right to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014.
This has put the regional grouping in a bit of a bind. Strictly speaking, after 14 years as a member of Asean, Burma is entitled to its turn at the helm. After all, it has already been forced to forgo the chairmanship once, in 2006.
“Myanmar [Burma] has to focus on the national reconciliation process, and has requested its Asean colleagues to postpone its chairmanship for another occasion,” Laos’s then Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavat said in 2005, the year the decision was made to leave Burma out in the cold.
A great deal has happened since then — massive monk-led protests in 2007, Cyclone Nargis, a sham referendum in 2008. Then there were last year’s dubious elections and the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. But “national reconciliation” hasn’t happened or even begun.
Last week, however, the new government made a familiar gambit clearly aimed at placating its critics: it invited Suu Kyi to meet with its “liaison minister,” Aung Kyi, a former junta functionary who held the same position under the old regime. But this token gesture isn’t going to make it any easier for Asean to decide how to proceed with Burma’s request for the chairmanship. Besides continuing allegations of war crimes in ethnic minority areas and the fact that there are still around 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, the new government’s leaders remain subject to sanctions in the United States and the European Union, which are major Asean trading partners.
Two weeks ago in Indonesia, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dashed any hopes that Naypyidaw might have had that merely playing the Suu Kyi card would suffice to convince anyone that the country is, at long last, moving in the right direction.
“We look to the government to unconditionally release the more than 2,000 political prisoners who continue to languish in prison,” she said, adding that the country’s rulers should also conduct meaningful and inclusive dialogue with the political opposition and ethnic minorities.
“The choice is clear,” she said. “They can take these steps and gain back the confidence of their people and the trust of the international community. Or they can continue down the path they’ve been on.”
Clinton also called on the military-backed civilian regime to address growing concerns about weapons proliferation. Washington has repeatedly expressed concern over Burma’s military ties with North Korea.
However, Clinton’s Indonesian counterpart, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, was much less forthright in stating what it would take for Burma to earn the trust and respect of the rest of Asean. And with Indonesia the current chair of Asean, his views are certainly pertinent. When asked about human rights and democratization in Burma, he was barely coherent: “Myanmar is obviously a work in process, in terms of democratization. To put it more — in a more — I guess — yes, I don’t want to use, describe it as a work in progress.”
Evidently, putting a positive spin on Burma’s current political situation has become such an enormous challenge that it leaves even senior regional leaders completely tongue-tied.
On the question at hand — whether Burma is fit to lead Asean — Natalegawa didn’t get himself quite so twisted out of shape, if only because he was able to resort to vaguer language: “We have to see and have a sense of comfort level whether Myanmar is actually prepared and ready to assume chairmanship of Asean in 2014. I am aware — we are aware — of the responsibilities and the expectations that are inherent in a particular country chairing Asean.”
To test their “comfort level,” Natalegawa has long insisted he will have to lead an Asean delegation to Burma to assess the country’s readiness before the grouping makes a firm decision. When this will happen has not yet been decided, but Asean can’t afford to leave the question of its future leadership open for too long. That means that Burma will have to act soon to prove that it is ready to respond to the demands of the Burmese people and the international community.
At this stage, however, the Burmese regime probably feels that it has done all that it is going to do. At the same time, it will be harder to drop its bid for the chairmanship this time, since it won’t have the same face-saving excuses to rely on.
In other words, things are about to become very uncomfortable, for Asean, for Burma and for Indonesia because it is in the chair. But that is the price they will have to pay if they want to achieve their goal of moving forward.
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.