Thursday, May 28, 2009

Is it Time for Burma and Asean to Part Ways?

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s military regime wasn’t behaving recklessly when it protested a decision by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to express “grave concern” over the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. Although Asean has long been a major diplomatic supporter of the junta, even coming to its defense before it became a member in 1997, Burma’s generals no longer seem to regard the grouping as a reliable diplomatic shield.

The generals who rule Burma have probably never seen Asean as anything more than a fig leaf. As far as they are concerned, the regional bloc should stick to its policy of “non-interference” and be silent when the junta commits political crimes on its own soil.

But now that Asean has committed the unforgivable faux pas of criticizing a member state, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the despotic general who steers the Burmese regime with an iron fist, is not worried, because he knows that his other allies, China and India, will give him the diplomatic cover he needs.

Unlike Asean, Burma’s biggest neighbors know when to mind their own business, a fact that Than Shwe has always appreciated.

“When Than Shwe compares Asean, India and China, he has no trouble making up his mind which one he can do without,” said a Burmese academic who is a close observer of Asean affairs. “I can imagine that the Asean statement [about Suu Kyi’s trial] really upset him,” he added.

Despite its recent meddling, however, Asean has often proven itself to be an indispensable tool for deflecting diplomatic pressure from the regime’s Western critics.

Two weeks after the junta orchestrated an attack on Suu Kyi and her supporters in the Depayin massacre of May 2003, for instance, Asean leaders shamelessly closed ranks around the regime to defend it against charges that it had attempted to assassinate the pro-democracy leader.

“The generals are fully aware that the Asean mechanism is perfect for their power maneuvers, because every member has its own political challenges,” making them all averse to any outside interference from fellow members, said a Burmese observer who used to work at the Asean Secretariat.

Now, however, Asean appears to be more aware that the Burmese generals’ behavior is taking a toll on the grouping’s image. It is also concerned that its bid to bring Burma into the international fold through a tripartite Cyclone Nargis relief and recovery effort, involving the junta, Asean and the United Nations, could fail spectacularly if the generals decide they are no longer interested in cooperating.

If Burma does drift further away from Asean, it would not be the first time it has decided to go it alone. In the 1970s, former dictator Ne Win pulled out of the Non-Aligned Movement, of which Burma was a founding member, after he concluded that it was becoming too radical. As the godfather of the current crop of generals, Ne Win repudiated the more outward-looking attitude of U Nu, Burma’s first and last democratically elected prime minister, in favor of an introverted, and increasingly paranoid, view of Burma’s place in the world. His most lasting foreign policy legacy has been the present rulers’ hostility to outside influences, expressed through occasional xenophobic outbursts against Western “neo-colonialists” and other foreign critics.

For Than Shwe, there can be no question of letting outsiders have a say in Burma’s domestic affairs. He has his heart set on leaving a legacy of his own: a “modern, developed nation” governed by military discipline, with only the slightest of nods to democratic rule. He fully expects Asean and the rest of the world to buy into his delusional vision of Burma’s future, and will not allow anything to stop him from implementing his “road map” to a “disciplined democracy.”

Last year, he dramatically demonstrated this single-minded determination by ignoring the country’s worst-ever natural disaster so that he could go ahead with a referendum on a constitution that would cement the military’s hold on power.

With more than 140,000 people dead or missing in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, you wouldn’t think that Burma had much to celebrate last May; but that didn’t prevent the junta crowing about the new constitution’s overwhelming approval, supposedly by more than 90 percent of the population.

Than Shwe has shown that he is utterly indifferent to the suffering of millions of ordinary Burmese, so why should anyone expect him to care about the rights and freedoms of Aung San Suu Kyi? More to the point, why should he care what Asean thinks about Suu Kyi’s fate? If Asean is tough enough to lay down the law and take real action against the regime, you can be sure that Than Shwe is prepared to take a page from his predecessor’s handbook and plunge the country once again into the total darkness of seclusion from the outside world. After all, he believes that the country has all the natural resources it needs to serve his purposes, and a military strong enough to deal with any domestic or external threat.

What Asean needs to consider is how Burma is affecting the region’s efforts to integrate, and particularly whether its most recalcitrant member is widening the divide between the more politically and economically advanced “old Asean” (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore) and the bloc’s newer members (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Burma), with their much smaller economies and more authoritarian systems of rule.

The key to bridging the gap between these two groups is to build an “Asean community that is … more rules-based and more people-oriented”—as Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan described the long-term goal of the new Asean Charter that came into force in December 2008. But if one member of the grouping routinely flouts the principles enshrined in the charter, which includes provisions guaranteeing respect for human rights, it will be dismissed as nothing more than a piece of paper, both by other members less inclined to comply and by Asean’s partners in the rest of the world.

Perhaps the moment has come for Asean to decide whether it is in its own best interests to let the Burmese junta call the shots again. This time, instead of allowing the generals to use Asean’s policy of non-interference as a shield against criticism, the grouping could remind them that there are also other principles at stake. If push came to shove, Than Shwe could very well conclude that membership in Asean is more trouble than it’s worth. But if Than Shwe really is ready to go down Ne Win’s road to ruin, Asean could be forgiven for not wanting to go down with him.

Nyo Ohn Myint is the chair of the Foreign Affairs Department of the National League for Democracy—Liberated Area (NLD-LA). Moe Zaw Oo is the secretary of the NLD-LA’s Foreign Affairs Department.

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