Asean’s Burmese diplomacy has failed

The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi has highlighted the inability of Burma’s neighbours to counter the generals’ stranglehold

The bizarre and protracted trial of Aung San Suu Kyi has just heard the final arguments of the prosecution and defence. The verdict – not expected for another month – will not only decide the fate of Burma’s iconic opposition leader, who has been held under house arrest for the best part of 19 years, but will cast a decisive shadow over elections scheduled for 2010.

During the recent visit of UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, junta chief General Tan Shwe promised free and fair elections next year. Indonesia’s foreign minister Dr Hassan Wirajuda has made it clear that Burma must release Suu Kyi if those elections are to be credible. Attending ARF, the Asean regional forum in Phuket, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton informed the Burmese delegation that any US offer to improve relations is dependent on releasing Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. And what happens if – as most observers expect – she is perversely found guilty of violating her conditions of house arrest, all because of a mysterious intrusion from an uninvited American guest?

Burma’s opposition has already predicted a guilty verdict, expecting the judge to send her to prison or renew her detention order for another five years, thus denying her any role in next year’s elections. So what will Asean do about their recalcitrant member? Not too much hope should be placed in the newly approved human rights provision of the Asean charter. The human rights commission has no power to monitor violations, and Burma participated in efforts to water down the provisions to exclude any monitoring or investigation.

Although the Indonesian foreign minister has expressed anger, the misgivings of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, expressed through softly-softly diplomacy known as “constructive engagement” with the regime, have so far made no difference. If anything, it has become routine at major Asean conferences for the Burmese delegation to deflect criticism and carry on as usual. The club of south-east Asian nations operates by consensus and shrinks from suggestions that Burma should either be expelled or suspended. The idea, suggested by parliamentarians from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, of suspending Burma’s membership was rejected by Thailand’s prime minister, the current Asean chairman. “There are not enough grounds to do that,” he said.

Since 1997, when Burma joined Asean, the military regime has been accused of forced labour, systematic torture of political prisoners and shooting protesting monks. Thailand has been flooded with political refugees, especially ethnic minorities such as Karen and Shan, fleeing the burning and pillaging of the Burmese military offensives. A recent report from Harvard law school calls for the UN security council to establish an investigation into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma.

Whether or not Burma should be suspended from Asean is one issue, but to suggest there are not enough grounds to even consider it is an insult to the endless sufferings of the Burmese people which Asean has singularly failed to alleviate. Asean’s leaders are quick to point out the failure of western sanctions and the futility of isolating a paranoid regime which has already withdrawn Burma’s capital from Rangoon to the newly-built secret citadel of Naypidaw, designed to be a “foreigner-free zone”.

But it is clear Asean’s policy of “constructive engagement” has equally failed to move Burma’s generals away from their bunker mentality and convince them of the need for a transition towards democracy. Asean has of course called for Suu Kyi’s release. But if the junta takes no notice and the court finds her guilty, after the usual round of polite protest, nothing will happen – it will be business as usual. Indeed those who condemn western sanctions are also countries involved in trade and investment in Burma.

A Thai Democrat MP, Kraisak Choonhavan, concerned that his country has not done enough for human rights in Burma, says one reason is “Thailand is the number one investor in natural gas. We pay 16bn baht a year to Burma.” He would like to see his government impose ethical and good governance practices on state enterprises doing business across the border.

The real issue, however, is not sanctions or engagement, but the type of sanctions, and the terms of engagement. But as long as Asean engages in unconditional diplomacy, sanctions are necessary to indicate the diplomatic rejection of a brutal regime. Up to now, the junta has survived thanks to support from China and Russia in the UN security council, and the cynical scramble for Burma’s rich natural resources which has united India, Thailand and Singapore with China and Russia. Suu Kyi will continue to languish behind bars (or under house arrest) as long as pressure on the generals is constantly deflected by the competing greed of these nations.

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