Monday, March 2, 2009

Climbing the Summits

By Yeni
The Irrawaddy News

The summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) ended in Thailand on Sunday with a short statement calling on Burma, the grouping’s most troublesome member, to release its political prisoners and engage in an “all-inclusive process” as the country moves toward a general election in 2010. Conspicuously absent from the statement was any mention of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

At a press briefing, Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said: “The Asean leaders encouraged Myanmar [Burma] to continue cooperation with the United Nations and to make sure that the roadmap continues according to plan, and that the process would be as inclusive as possible, which includes, of course, the continuation of the release of prisoners or political detainees and also the participation of political parties in the upcoming election.”

Abhisit’s words were delivered in the characteristic tone that Asean members use when discussing the affairs of fellow members. There was no hectoring or threat of pressure—just a polite, and slightly pleading, request for cooperation. “The Asean way,” after all, is all about friendly, fraternal advice, non-interference, and the avoidance of anything that might sow seeds of dissension.

But this did not stop Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi from expressing some dissatisfaction with the attitude of the Burmese delegation. During a closed-door exchange among Asean leaders, Gen Thein Sein, the junta’s prime minister, bluntly told his counterparts that Burma would deal with the United Nations, and not Asean, in talks about the country’s political future. Badawi told reporters afterwards that the regional club, which has provided the Burmese regime with diplomatic cover since it admitted Burma in 1997, “will not be the interlocutor” in efforts to end the country’s international isolation.

Far from seeking a more active role in pushing for political reforms in Burma, Asean seemed more interested in counseling the UN to move cautiously with its own efforts. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon against returning to the country prematurely, because doing so would “raise unrealistic expectations that cannot be met and would be counter-productive.”

This is a danger that the UN chief understands all too well. Speaking to reporters following a meeting of the so-called Group of Friends of Myanmar, Ban recently said: “I will try to visit, but there may be some issues. First of all, I have to discuss with the Myanmar government about timing, about agendas which I would be able to discuss, but nothing has yet been discussed.”

In the meantime, there are indications that the regime may be willing to make at least one concession to the UN. The Bangkok Post, quoting a senior Thai official, said that Thein Sein told the Thai prime minister that Burma would allow UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari and UN staff to observe a national election slated to take place in 2010.

Asean has also had to make some conciliatory gestures. After two civil society representatives—Khin Ohmar of Burma and Pen Sommoly of Cambodia—were barred from a meeting between representatives of Southeast Asian civil society and the 10 Asean heads of state, Thai PM Abhisit met them later to make up for the snub.

But it will take far more than this to convince the world that Asean is serious about becoming a credible defender of fundamental rights. If Asean wants to fulfill its ambition of creating an Asean Community by 2015, it will need to take bold steps to overcome its image as a grouping that is constantly at the mercy of controversies caused by a member that doesn’t seem to care how its actions affect others.

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