Monday, July 27, 2009

A chink may yet be appearing in Burma's obstinacy


(Bangkok Post) -The Burma and North Korea issues have been in the spotlight at Asean meetings for more than a decade. The "issues" vary from meeting to meeting, depending on what is happening with these countries at the time.

Mostly, Burma would be brought up at the meetings because of its strong opposition to human rights within the country.

There seems to be no sustainable solution to the problems although the regime always tries to appease its Asean neighbours by releasing a number of political prisoners prior to the conferences.

The perennial barb, however, is the continued detention of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now facing trial for an alleged violation of her house arrest rules after an American man swam across the river to her home.

Burma has given some hope to the international community by announcing a national reconciliation process and its peaceful transition to democracy, as envisaged in the seven-step road map to democracy, in particular the adoption of the State Constitution of 2008 by referendum which will lead to a general election next year. It will be the first national election after the regime refused the overwhelming victory of Ms Suu Kyi in 1990.

But without Ms Suu Kyi joining in the 2010 election, it will be worthless.

Asean's goal of becoming one community by 2015 is approaching and if the 2010 election in Burma fails, the hopes and dreams for all 10 Asean members to become a homogeneous community might remain just that - a dream.

A diplomat who attended the Asean meeting last week said the grouping's members conveyed to Burma that the atmosphere was not good and Burma had to do something to break its silence.

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said that in this meeting, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win learnt that "his country is a major factor in moving Asean forward".

"It is the duty of Asean and Burma to push the grouping together to become a community," Mr Kasit said.

For the first time, Asean asked Nyan Win to convey the sentiment to the Burmese leadership.

The action came after Asean foreign ministers felt concerned that their joint call for changes in Burma might not reach the ears of the Burmese leader Snr Gen Than Shwe.

Nobody can tell how receptive the Burmese leaders will be to what the outside world has been demanding. Many demands were made in the past but no actions were taken by the regime.

The many joint communiques of Asean and the chairman's statement from the Asean Plus Three - Japan, China and South Korea - as well as ARF throughout the years reaffirm that the Burmese government must hold a free, fair and inclusive election in 2010 in order to lay down a good foundation for future social and economic development.

They reiterated their calls for the Burmese government to immediately release all political prisoners, including Ms Suu Kyi to pave the way for genuine reconciliation and meaningful dialogue involving all parties.

"Asean ministers were afraid that the Burmese leader might choose to acknowledge only the positive reaction from Asean such as its welcoming of the recent visit of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon or the thanks for Burma's cooperation in allowing outsiders to help its people after Cyclone Nargis," said a source who attended the meeting.

The source admitted the atmosphere in the meeting rooms was better than the past year as there was not any pressure on Burma.

"The atmosphere was full of cogency and pertinent to the real reason [of the need for change in Burma]. There were more frank discussions than in the past," the source said.

This was reflected in the offer of Asean and members of ARF to work with Burma to promote democracy, human rights and the well-being of her people. At the same time, it was hoped that Burma would also be responsive to the international community's concerns, according to Mr Kasit.

Nyan Win, however, told his Asean counterparts on Monday that pressure from the outside world and economic sanctions were hampering Burma's democratisation and development efforts.

According to the same source, Asean was in the process of persuading Burma to change its situation.

"Having Asean to help Burma in its democratisation is better than fighting it," the source said. This message was released during the ARF meeting in which the US also participated.

Mr Kasit emphasised that Asean members wanted to help one another and resolve internal problems within the bloc's family without recourse to the international community.

Asean's new approach towards Burma at this meeting is its ministers have agreed to take turns to engage the Burmese leadership soon and if the Burmese government would allow outsiders to observe its elections next year, Asean should be the first grouping to do so, the source said.

Asean is expected to receive a positive response from Burma before the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York in September where all Asean foreign ministers will gather, the source added.

If Asean is a pull factor for Burma, the US is working as a push one.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Burma to release Ms Suu Kyi in exchange for direct investment from the United States.

"If she were released, that would open up opportunities at least for my country to expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma," she said.

Pornpimon Trichote, a Burmese expert, said she was not surprised at the US shift as new US President Barack Obama used to hint that the US policy towards Burma might change.

"The US might change some approaches towards Burma but its principles would remain the same. However, I believe Burma might not be in a hurry to reciprocate on what the US has to offer as the relationship of both countries has been estranged for a long time," she said, adding that Burma never cared for the US as it is friends with other powers like China, Russia and North Korea.

If things go according to plan, these push and pull factors could eventually help create more space to deal with Burma after the election next year, she said. "The US might face an impasse as the sanctions have produced nothing for many years. If it has not changed its position, it has nowhere to go," she said, adding it was likely condemnation of Burma will be softer after this.

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