Saturday, August 1, 2009

Can Indonesia Break the Asean Deadlock on Burma?

The Irrawaddy News

The military junta ruling Burma is more or less impervious to foreign pressure, or so it seems. It might well respond to some harsh words from Beijing or New Delhi, should these ever materialize. For now, however, neither tough rhetoric nor sanctions have made much of a dent.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has been particularly acquiescent, holding fast to its cherished principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. It came as something of a surprise, then, when Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Hassan Wirajuda, speaking in advance of the Asean Regional Forum in Phuket, Thailand, last week, said that the junta must release Aung San Suu Kyi for the 2010 elections to be deemed free and fair.

Despite this unexpected departure from the Asean party line, however, some observers say it is too early to judge whether Indonesia—a country that has undergone a remarkable political transformation over the past decade—is about to take the grouping in a new direction in its approach to Burma.

“It is better to look into the future [to see] if Indonesia’s policy toward Myanmar [Burma] will be similar to the Asean approach or it might be different,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Noting that Indonesia has been too preoccupied in recent years with its own process of democratization to formulate a clear policy on Burma, Pavin said that Jakarta may now be turning to this issue to bolster its own democratic credentials.

“Personally, I think Jakarta would choose to adopt a harsher stance vis-à-vis the junta to prove that it really adheres to democratic principle,” he said. “Indonesia does not have ample economic interests in Myanmar, so it is easier for Jakarta to push harder for political change in this country.”

Part of this may be a response to pressure from Indonesia’s parliament and civil society, which still has vivid memories of the anti-Suharto struggles. But if Dr Wirajuda’s remarks mark a concerted policy change, Jakarta might be on its own, in Asean at least. Now and then Manila chips in with some harsh words, and would-be Asean member Timor-Leste has irked the junta with President Jose Ramos Horta’s sporadic exhortations (most recently telling Australian media that Canberra could do more to pressure the generals). But for the most part, the grouping has gone out of its way to avoid rocking the boat on Burma.

This could change, however, if China’s growing clout in the region provokes Asean to act more assertively to put its own house in order. If Asean members, led by Jakarta and in concert with the US, sought to intervene more forcefully in Burma, it might show Beijing that it cannot expect to have things all its own way with the 600 million-strong bloc to its south, and would remind Beijing that some Asean countries have powerful outside allies to turn to for support.

Pulling Burma more firmly into Asean’s orbit would have major consequences for China. Burma is a vital part of China’s regional strategy, with energy and economic ties intertwined with Beijing’s geo-strategic concerns—the latter exemplified by the new energy corridor linking Burma’s Kyaukpyu port with China’s Yunnan Province. This will transfer 20 million tonnes of crude oil to China from the Middle East and Africa annually, and help Beijing reduce reliance on the Straits of Malacca, which the US Navy, could, if push came to shove, close off at any time.

Whether Indonesia sees itself taking on such a role is, of course, entirely a matter of speculation. However, it may well be that Jakarta would like to carve out a niche for itself that is commensurate with its status as Asean’s largest and most populous member. President Yudhoyono sought to raise Jakarta’s geopolitical profile during his first term in office, but many of his foreign policy initiatives were written off as ineffective and symbolic. Indonesia’s stint on the UN Security Council achieved little of note, including on Burma.

However, Indonesian progress over the last decade has been one of the more surprising success stories in democratization, in an era when scholars such as Larry Diamond and organizations such as Freedom House are noting regression across the globe. In Southeast Asia, only Indonesia is ranked as free by Freedom House. Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are ranked as not free, while Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore are ranked as partly free.

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