Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Asean’s Patience Frayed by Burma—Again

The Irrawaddy News

If you’re looking for a barometer of how badly Burma’s junta is misbehaving, just wait and see how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) responds to the generals’ latest headline-grabbing outrage.

Generally reluctant to weigh in on any issue relating to the “internal affairs” of one of its members, the regional grouping rarely speaks out over Burma—and then only when silence is no longer an option.

If Asean does criticize the regime—as it did when it expressed “revulsion” at reports of Burmese soldiers gunning down monks and other protesters in the streets of Rangoon in September 2007—you know that things have really gotten out of hand.

The bloc’s uncharacteristically tough language at that time was due to deepening concerns about the effects of the junta’s actions on Asean’s reputation. As Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo put it: “Unless we put things right, and set Myanmar [Burma] to a new course, we will all be affected and dragged down with Myanmar.”

It was probably with these thoughts in mind that Asean, along with its Asian and European partners at the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem), yesterday issued a statement in Hanoi calling for “the early release of those under detention and the lifting of restrictions placed on political parties” in Burma.

“Those under detention” include, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose trial on charges that could put her behind bars for five years has attracted intense international attention and cast a harsh light, once again, on Burma’s egregious generals—and, to some extent, on their regional “partners.”

During its 12 years as a member of Asean, Burma has been a lightning rod for criticism of everything that’s wrong with the association.

In a region better known for its authoritarian governments than its respect for the rule of law, Burma has revealed time and again Asean’s inability to promote even the most basic standards of good governance among its members.

But Asean seems determined to correct the perception that it can’t get its act together, and few issues—including even the recent imbroglio over Thailand’s failed attempts to host key Asean events due to domestic political disturbances—have been more damaging in this respect than Burma.

This has prompted some to propose drastic measures.

On Tuesday, a 21-year veteran of Singapore’s parliament called on fellow Asean members to do the unthinkable and cut Burma loose, lest the country’s rulers ruin the regional body’s efforts to enhance its standing in the international community.

Charles Chong, a member of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, said that “Asean must consider, regretfully, suspending Burma from the association,” adding that he didn’t want to see the grouping “drawn down to the level of Burma.”

Chong’s radical suggestion was soon shot down, however, by none less than Surin Pitsuwan, the former Thai foreign minister who now serves as Asean’s secretary-general.

“We don’t have any provision to suspend or eject any member,” said Surin, whose own government was taken to task earlier this week for expressing “grave concern” over Suu Kyi’s trial and its potential impact on the region.

“It is sadly noted that [Thailand] failed to preserve the dignity of Asean, the dignity of [Burma] and the dignity of Thailand,” the Burmese junta said on Monday, in response to an Asean statement issued through its current chair, Thailand, last week.

But the Burmese junta’s attempts to invoke “the dignity of Asean” in its own defense are not likely to sit well with other members of the association, who have grown tired of repeatedly seeing their agenda hijacked by the regime’s shameless behavior.

For now, Asean may stick with its policy of closing ranks around Burma in the name of regional solidarity. But if the junta goes ahead with its plans to imprison Suu Kyi, Asean could, for once, be forced to do more than merely echo the sentiments of governments and public opinion in the rest of the world.

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