Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Asean seeks to 'unchain' the mind of Burmese junta


(Bangkok Post) -Featuring high in the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) agenda this year is the issue of political deadlock in Burma.

After all these years, and since it became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1997, Burma has shown, time and again, that it has managed its domestic affairs without restraint.

The recent trial of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), is the junta's latest defiance against heightening international pressure.

Back in early May 2008, Burma was hit hard by Cyclone Nargis which slammed into the Ayeyawaddy Delta, causing almost 140,000 deaths and leaving 2 million homeless. Initially, Burmese leaders were reluctant to open up their country for foreign assistance, fearing that the West would use this opportunity to interfere in its domestic politics, or even to deploy their troops on Burma's soil. It was the case of being overly paranoid and extremely xenophobic.

Asean, led by Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, eagerly embarked on a mission to convince the Burmese junta to accept international aid. He, on behalf of Asean, offered to play a "broker," connecting Burma and the outside world in the reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. Leaders in Naypyidaw finally agreed with Mr Surin's initiative.

My Burmese friend and I were commissioned by Mr Surin to document Asean's role in the post-Nargis relief efforts. We shuttled between Bangkok, Singapore and Rangoon to conduct countless interviews and to visit the areas devastated by the cyclone. The picture of floating corpses is still fresh in my memory.

Asean has done an excellent job in reaching out to the Burmese junta and explaining to them the important notion of humanitarian assistance and good governance. For once, we believed that we had done something meaningful for Burma, especially in unblocking obstacles that stood in the way of our relief efforts. We were successful in opening up Burma to the world.

But the growing discontent inside Burma and the trial of Mrs Suu Kyi fiercely contested our belief of a new Burma that seemed to open itself up and allow itself to be acclimatised by the global reality. The junta has still refused to set Mrs Suu Kyi free, even despite the plea of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. As of now, the junta wants to go ahead with next year's election without the participation of the NLD.

The conclusion here is that Asean might have been successful, drawing from its Nargis experience, in opening up Burma. But the opening up process was merely physical. Asean has so far been unable to open the junta's mind. The Burmese border might be open. But the leaders' mental doors are still tightly closed.


First, the Burmese junta has been living in insecurity. Its only tool of survival is repression and intimidation. In strengthening its power position, the junta has painted the image of the outside world as black, including that of the Burmese dissidents. Leaders in Naypyidaw have rejected the idea of democracy, even when they pretended to go along with their own roadmap. Democracy is an evil word. To them, it does not even match Burma's political culture and the Burmese lifestyle.

Of course, all these imaginings are part of the junta's self-construction as the ultimate moral authority within the domestic realm. Asean and the global community have failed to unlock the junta's mentality, mainly because political power is not easily negotiable and particularly if unlocking the mentality only means surrendering of its power.

Bangkok's elite should realise how hard it is to let go of power, as they faced the challenge of Thaksin Shinawatra. They, too, have a blocked mind.

Second, simply summarising that Burma cared about the well-being of the Nargis survivors and truly understood the meaning of humanitarian assistance just because it opened the door to foreign donors, could totally mislead us all. As the Burmese leaders compromised their position in the aftermath of Nargis, Asean hoped that it would be granted more access to the heart of the junta.

Yet, aiding suffering Nargis survivors and releasing potential political contenders from incarceration are two different things. Mrs Suu Kyi has always been perceived as a threat to the regime. She is a democratic icon and a symbol of legitimacy. Since 1997, Burma has sent out the message that free political thought is intolerable. Such a message remained unaltered even in the midst of the Nargis attack.

Third, the closed mind of the Naypyidaw elite is putting the Asean Charter to the greatest test. The Burmese junta fully knows that there is no provision in the Charter that indicates any punishment for a badly behaved member. True, the codification of norms governing relations between state and its citizens is included in the Asean Charter. The Asean human rights body has also been in operation.

The imminent question is how Asean can make use of these new mechanisms to make a breakthrough in the Burmese political crisis, especially in unchaining the mind of the leaders.

The launch of the book on Asean's role in the Nargis relief efforts during the AMM in Phuket, may connote a time to celebrate the grouping's success in such a meaningful mission. The launch would serve well the ARF agenda on the current situation in Burma, as Asean optimists are convinced that the same method could work in resolving the Burmese political problem: Asean being an honest broker in linking Burma with the world. There is nothing wrong with being optimistic. Having long observed Burma's politics over the past two decades however, I think that being realistic is a more rational approach, as I try to examine the complicated situation in that country.

In realistic terms, the prolonged crisis in Burma seems to suggest that perhaps the junta has intentionally hidden the key that could be used to unlock its own mindset. The political conflict in neighbouring Thailand makes the Burmese leaders even more wary of opening up and welcoming democracy.

Asean's push for change in Burma is highly commendable. Secretary-General Surin has done a remarkable job in opening up a channel of communication, no matter how narrow it is, between Burma and the world. But Cyclone Nargis is an episode of catastrophe. The real disaster for Burma and the Burmese people, which will be more devastating than Nargis, is indeed the persistent existence of the Burmese military regime.

Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, is co-author, with Moe Thuzar, of "Myanmar: Life After Nargis."

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