Monday, June 1, 2009

It's incumbent upon Thailand to lead Asean on Burma

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

AFTER THE ASEAN CHARTER came into force on December 15 2008, members were obliged to follow objectives, principles and norms set forth in the document. These include the promotion and protection of human and other fundamental rights. What the Burmese regime has done against the opposition of Aung San Suu Kyi and its other citizens is not part of Asean's standards or practices.

Before the charter's drafting, it was customary for Asean members to defend their colleagues to ensure continued unity. As a regional organisation, Asean also protected members from outsider pressures and scrutiny. Under such conditions, the principle of non-interference was the mantra to glue Asean together and silence criticisms from within. Even before Burma joined Asean in 1997, the grouping was providing the most effective shield to the regime - first as an Asean observer (1995) and a signatory to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1996) - over Burma's preponderance for using force against its own people. The East-West divide also augmented Asean's determination to admit Burma, despite repeated warnings of the consequences.

During the deadly Depayin incident in May 2003, when Suu Kyi was almost killed by junta-sponsored thugs, Asean leaders were uncharacteristically silent. At the summit in Phnom Penh six months later, the Asean leaders gave a vote of confidence to the newly appointed Burmese prime minister Lt General Khin Nyunt, hoping he could lead changes from the inside. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra also backed the new leader saying Burma deserved a second chance. In October 2004, Khin Nyunt was purged from power and placed under house-arrest.

Now Asean has shown some backbone in handling Burma's situation and the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as with its Western dialogue partners, after Asean gained the charter. The Asean chair's statement calling for her release was the strongest ever from a country with which it shares one of the longest common borders in Southeast Asia.

At the Asean-EU Ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh last week, the Asean foreign ministers, except Burma, expressed strong support for the chair's statement. The Asean leaders are anxious to meet Burmese Prime Minister General Thein Sein on the side-lines of the Asean-South Korea Commemorative Summit scheduled today and tomorrow in Cheju Island, South Korea to gauge the regime's latest attitude.

In engaging the dialogue partners over Burma, Asean used to be insecure and easily angered whenever criticism or disagreements came to the fore.

Throughout the past two decades, Asean was often up in arms against the West's criticism defending Burma's record and the decision to admit the pariah state into the family. Now, it is a different story.

For instance, joint statements from the Asean-Asem and Asean-EU ministerial meetings issued last week in Hanoi and Phnom Penh respectively would not have been possible without the new Asean attitude. It was a far-cry from the atmosphere of earlier Asean-EU ministerial meetings, especially after the May 1990 polls; the two sides often traded insults and blamed each other for lack of understanding of their distinctive political environment and cultures. Burma is no longer a wedge, albeit remaining a problem, dividing Asean and EU as they see eye to eye that Burma needs to open up political space, support the UN role, free all political prisoners and hold inclusive elections.

The EU has in recent months become one of the most enthusiastic Asean dialogue partners, collectively and individually. Last week, the EU became the first regional organisation to sign a protocol to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation which now boasts 17 signatories, apart from the 10-member Asean. TAC was amended to allow EU ascension as an entity. Nearly half the 27 members have already appointed their ambassadors attached to Asean.

Asean can now ponder how best to tackle the current Burmese situation. First of all, the Asean leaders have to determine if the current trial of Suu Kyi and political oppression inside Burma are considered a serious breach of the Asean charter. This is a tough but unavoidable question as it will set a precedence for the grouping's own future.

Asean Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan's role will also be crucial in interpreting the charter. Indonesia's draft of the joint Asean statement on Burma, which was diluted by the new Asean members in Phuket last month, specifically linked the charter with Burma's intransigence. Jakarta's position was clear that it was a breach of the charter and Rangoon failed to take up collective responsibility as part of the Asean family. The other five core Asean members including Brunei were on the same page.

As the grouping's leading democracy, Indonesia can urge the Thai chair to put the Burmese issue on the agenda of the upcoming summit to work out appropriate responses.

Indonesia, as the country that initiated drafting of the Asean Charter, feels that the charter must be taken seriously both in words and spirit, otherwise Asean's future and creditability are at stake. Protecting the charter and giving it teeth is a priority shared by Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The second approach would be the initiative of the Thai chair. To take Burma to task, the government must be firmer on overall Thai-Burma relations. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya must not abandon the much respected Burmese policies of their predecessors from 1997-2001. To do so, Thailand urgently needs to review ties with Burma and design a new and more comprehensive policy that lessens dependence on Burma's energy and resources-based imports.

Thai-Burmese border security, which has been neglected for the past several years, must be beefed up. Quite often, when the junta leaders faced a continuous international community bombardment, they would pick on Thailand to rally domestic support.

At the Asean summit in Laos in 2004, Burma skipped the Asean chairmanship due to sustained outside pressure both from Asean and the EU. But this time, the outcries over Suu Kyi's trial were louder and broader in every way. Parliamentarians from Asean countries recommended suspension of its membership.

It is incumbent on the chair to call for a meeting among the leaders on the issue.

Suspension of Burma's rights and privileges within Asean is possible if Rangoon remains defiant and Suu Kyi continues to be held. For the membership's suspension, it would require extraordinary courage for the chair as well as the leaders of core Asean members to kick off the debate.

Either approach gives life and blood to the charter, which will set the future yardstick for compliance.

The Asean leaders must be ready to protect the charter,
not a pariah member in their midst.

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