News Analysis: Asean face 'difficult position' on Myanmar

Posted in Asia | 26-Jul-05 | Author: Seth Mydans| Source: International Herald Tribune

Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win (2nd L) speaks with his counterpart from the Philippines, Alberto Romulo (2nd R), while counterparts from Singapore, George Yeo (R) and Malaysia, Syed Hamid Albar (L), look on during a press conference in Vientiane, 26 July 2005, on the sidelines of the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meeting.
VIENTIANE, Laos The idea was "constructive engagement," and the intent was to pull Myanmar out of its self-imposed isolation and open it to democracy and economic growth by embracing it in the family of Southeast Asian nations.

In 1997 it became the ninth of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. And the repressive regime in Yangon has been one of its most unpleasant problems ever since.

At a meeting here this week, Asean's other members hope to push Myanmar out of its embarrassing place as next year's chairman, a role it is scheduled to assume under an annual rotation.

For a group that defines itself in part by its nonconfrontational style, this has been an almost existential exercise, exposing rifts that lie behind its calm surface and underscoring questions about its declining importance and its long-accepted practices.

In an effort to gain more focus and relevance, Asean is in the process of adopting a formal charter and has stated an explicit commitment to democratic government, said Rizal Sukma, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia.

"The Myanmar situation directly challenges that," he said. "If it cannot be resolved, you will see greater divisions between the democratic and nondemocratic members of Asean."

As the meeting here opened, Burmese officials began hinting that they would agree to step aside and let the Philippines, which is next in the alphabetical rotation, assume the chairmanship a year from now.

"We do not want to have our friends in a very difficult position," a Burmese Foreign Ministry official, Thaung Tun, told reporters on Sunday, as reported by The Associated Press.

The "difficult position" would entail a threatened boycott by Western countries of multilateral meetings led by Myanmar, tainting the entire association with that country's pariah status.

In what many analysts are taking as a hint about the future, the U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, citing scheduling conflicts, has broken with the custom of nearly all her predecessors and chosen not to attend Asean's final session this week.

But the embarrassment of the Burmese membership is in part a reflection of a larger problem Asean created for itself in the 1980s and 1990s, when it expanded from its core group of five increasingly developed countries. Those five were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand; the wealthy sultanate of Brunei was added in 1985.

Fulfilling a vision of regional inclusion, Asean then admitted Vietnam and Laos, both communist, and the barely functioning country of Cambodia as well as Myanmar, all of whom injected into Asean a complex of new political and economic problems.

This upstairs-downstairs division has made it more difficult to reach a consensus regarding Myanmar, where, to one degree or another, the four newest members see reflections of themselves.

Even if Myanmar does play the gentleman and stand aside, it will remain a member of Asean, and the divisions it has heightened will continue, said Rizal, the Indonesia-based analyst.

Asean was founded 37 years ago during the Cold War. Today it is not communism but China's dominance that is the region's overarching issue, and Asean has not succeeded in its hope of becoming a unified counterweight. Apart from common agreements on some narrowly defined issues, each country has responded on its own to China's customized mix of sticks and carrots.

A hope of keeping Myanmar from sinking too deeply into China's orbit was one of the motivations for inviting it to join Asean. But the more its neighbors and Western countries attempted to pull Myanmar out of its shell, the more it retreated toward China. Northern Myanmar is close to being an economic satrapy of China now.

Another rationale for the inclusion of Myanmar has also boomeranged: a hope of nudging it toward greater democracy and openness. Instead, Myanmar has used its membership in Asean as cover, validating a strong-arm rule that has crushed human rights and freedoms, Rizal said.

"It has used its membership to show that what happens within the country has nothing to do with acceptance by other countries in Asean," he said.

The association turned Myanmar into something of a test case for its own effectiveness, lobbying hard with its military rulers, only to be left feeling used and insulted as the generals conceded nothing of substance. Asean has also shown itself not to be a potent force in a variety of disputes among members, including tensions between Cambodia and both Vietnam and Thailand; territorial questions between Indonesia and the Philippines; and conflicting claims to small Pacific islands.

It is working now to rectify its ineffectiveness in coordinating counterterrorism measures among its members.

Like the difficulties with Myanmar, individual conflicts are straining Asean's ethos of noninterference in its members' internal affairs, said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a leading political commentator with The Nation, an English-language newspaper in Thailand.

"I think Malaysia will be the first one to break this taboo more aggressively," he said. That country is concerned about the treatment of Muslims across the border in southern Thailand.

"The situation in southern Thailand has rattled the Malaysian government," he said, and it may not remain publicly patient. The frustrations in dealing with Myanmar have not given patience a good name.