ASEAN leaders allow Burma to get off scot-free by Larry Jagan

Thursday, 29 October 2009 17:34

Mizzima – A smug Burmese delegation, led by Prime Minister and General Thein Sein, are back home after attending the 15th annual ASEAN summit in Thailand, where they successfully accomplished their main mission – to deflect international criticism and pressure, reveal nothing about the forthcoming elections and keep a very low-profile.

For the first time in years, the issue of Burma did not dominate the proceedings of the regional summit. In fact, the presidential statement on Burma was the mildest it has been for nearly a decade. All the leaders could agree on was to say that the regional organization hoped Burma’s national reconciliation process would be inclusive.

“We underscored the importance of achieving national reconciliation and that the general elections to be held in Myanmar [Burma] in 2010 must be conducted in a fair, free, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community,” read the president’s statement at the end of the summit.

Instead of being grilled by fellow Asian leaders at the various meetings – bilateral encounters, formal sessions, retreats and dinners – the Burmese leaders could sit quietly at their tables and keep mum. This was a result in no small way determined by the simmering dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, which dominated the meeting. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen took the limelight when he told journalists as soon as he arrived at the summit on Friday that the self-exiled former Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was just like Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As a result, the testy relations between the current Thai prime minister and the Cambodian leader did Thein Sein a favor – as he was almost left alone, except for Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who wanted to remind Burma that they had promised to make sure their common border remained calm after the recent fighting in northern Burma and the mass exodus of thousands of Kokang refugees into Yunnan some two months ago.

Prime Minister Thein Sein and Foreign Minister Nyan Win also repeatedly dodged journalists waiting on the sidelines of the meeting in the southern Thai resort area of Cha-am. While every other delegation gave press briefings and interviews, the Burmese delegation refused every opportunity.

Impact of U.S. policy review

But some things did emerge from these meetings that may have an impact on the Burmese democracy roadmap and the forthcoming elections. There is certainly a recognition that the international situation regarding Burma has shifted significantly since the United States announced its policy review last month, suggesting the way forward as a combination of dialogue and sanctions.

“We are aware of a new era of hope and that there will be some normalization of relations between Burma and the United States, which we welcome,” Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh told Mizzima when asked about India’s policy towards Burma on the last day of the summit.

Thailand’s Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was even more forthright, preferring to see the U.S. move as a vindication of the region’s soft approach to Burma. “ASEAN has always argued that engagement is the right approach. We feel that if everybody takes this approach we would be encouraging Myanmar [Burma] in her successful implementation of her own roadmap [to democracy],” Abhisit told journalists.

With the ASEAN summit coming only weeks after the U.S. announcement, it was always going to be easy for the Burmese delegation. And they seemed to know it – being the first delegation to arrive in Hua Hin, early in the afternoon a day early.

Meanwhile, the U.S. offer of dialogue with the regime has thrown other actors within the international community into disarray, raising increasing questions about how the U.N. and ASEAN can help Burma’s reconciliation process. For the U.N., it would seem this is the end of the road. But there may still be a role for ASEAN, and China certainly is keen to stay involved.

Election law coming

So what emerged from the Burmese delegation? The most important message Thein Sein seems to have brought from the Burma’s military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, was that the electoral law is being completed – though most analysts believe it was actually finished at least a year ago, if not much earlier – and will soon be made public.

“General Thein Sein said the electoral law will be announced very soon,” Abhisit told Mizzima after his bilateral meeting with the Burmese leader on the first day of the summit. But the Burmese Prime Minister provided no further details, he added.

Not really news. Everyone in Rangoon understands the electoral law is ready and should be published soon; though it seems certain it has been delayed by the recent U.S. policy review, as Than Shwe decides on a revised game plan.

What is also clear is that all Asia wants to see real national reconciliation take place in Burma and for that to happen the elections next year will have to be inclusive, fair and free. “The Myanmar [Burmese] government says the election next year will be inclusive, free and fair,” Thailand’s Foreign Minister, Kasit Piromya, told Mizzima after he and the Thai Premier met their counterparts in the first bilateral tête-à-tête of the summit.

But the ASEAN leaders had obviously made up their minds before the summit that whatever the Burmese regime said they would spin as best possible. “There’s been progress towards national reconciliation and movement on the roadmap recently,” Thailand’s Foreign Minister said in response to a question from Mizzima.

“There’s been 7,000 political prisoners released,” added the Thai Foreign Minister, “or at least that is the figure I heard.” Of course, according to the Burmese regime there are no political prisoners. In any case, of the 7,114 prisoners released, less than 250 were political prisoners, according to human rights groups that monitor the situation in Burma.

The other signs of progress towards national reconciliation that Thein Sein, at every opportunity, offered his counterparts, was that dialogue is taking place with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. “She has been able to meet the government [Labor Minister Aung Kyi] twice recently, and several diplomats. This is movement,” Kasit boldly told Mizzima.

However, few in Burma would agree with him. But apparently all the heads of state and foreign ministers, including the Indian representatives, preferred to look on the bright side and accept the regime’s protestations at face value.

Aung San Suu Kyi

But what of the fate of the pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate? There Thein Sein played his best cards – using innuendos and implications to put the best possible spin on her intolerable situation, even though the opposition leader was recently sentenced to a further 18 months under house arrest on trumped up charges stemming from a security breach related to an unwanted visit by U.S. citizen John Yettaw to Suu Kyi’s estate. Some diplomats even said Thein Sein never actually used The Lady’s name in any of the meetings, though still apparently convincing at least the Thai Prime Minister that the military government had not ruled out a role for her.

“[Thein Sein] briefed us on some of the dialogue that is taking place and he feels optimistic that she can contribute also to the process of national reconciliation,” Abhisit told a press conference at the end of the summit.

This follows an even more optimistic account of Thein Sein’s views a day earlier by Kazuo Kodama, the official spokesperson for Yukio Hatoyama, the Japanese Prime Minister. “She is under house arrest and the Prime Minister [said] if she continues to take a good attitude then it is possible that there will be a relaxation of the measures on her,” Kodama told journalists at his press conference in Hua Hin.

“Myanmar’s [Burma’s] government believes that Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have softened her attitude towards the authorities,” said the Japanese spokesperson following Thein Sein’s briefing of an ASEAN+3 meeting, which includes China, Japan and South Korea in addition to the ten ASEAN members.

Kodama said that the Burmese regime “thinks if Aung San Suu Kyi maintains a good attitude it is possible that the Myanmar [Burma] authorities will relax the current measures.”

Elections are the answer

In the end, Asia’s leaders all seemed to agree that next year’s the planned elections will be the panacea for all Burma’s ills. Dr. Manmohan Singh told Mizzima that all the problems in Burma – a possible civil war with ethnic groups, human rights abuses and even the growing border tension with Bangladesh – would be solved through next year’s elections. While less sanguine, most other Asian leaders also opted to put their faith in the next year’s planned elections.

At the foreign ministers private dinner on Thursday night, Nyan Win assured his ASEAN counterparts that the election would meet the standards demanded by the international community, according to diplomats who attended the function. Thein Sein is also quoted by those who heard his briefing that next year’s election will be inclusive – though he never mentioned whether that means Aung San Suu Kyi would be freed and able to stand.

The ASEAN approach seems to be to give the Burmese junta enough rope to hang themselves. This is the regime’s last chance: they promised free and fair elections, so they will be held accountable for that. The buzzword though is ‘credible’. “They [Burma’s military rulers] recognize full well that we expect to see inclusive and credible elections,” said Abhisit. And we stand ready to help them in whatever way they want.”

China, of course, privately wants the same thing. “China adheres to the principle of national reconciliation and unity, by promoting political dialogue and consultation between the government and the opposition,” said Dr. Li Xuecheng at the Chinese Institute of Strategic Studies. “China is willing to work together with all the relevant parties, including opposition political parties, to make the 2010 elections a success.”

More than 200 Chinese government and private companies along China’s southeast coastal strip are planning to invest heavily in Burma after deciding Vietnam does not offer the investment incentives that Burma does. But they are all waiting for the elections, which they hope will bring about a new era of legitimacy and stability, according to Chinese academics and diplomats based in the region who closely follow Burmese affairs.

So, while the Burmese delegation may have slinked away from the ASEAN summit relatively unscathed this time, they may now find it impossible to meet the region’s expectations. But ASEAN’s approach of giving the regime the benefit of the doubt should worry the master military tactician in Naypyitaw. There is a limit to how often he can pull the wool over his neighbors’ eyes, and this is surely it.

On the other hand, if the ASEAN approach helps to make next years’ elections inclusive, free and fair, it will prove to be an astute diplomatic move. The fear remains, however, because of past precedents, that ASEAN’s leaders simply wanted to avoid confrontation.

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