ASEAN Nod Pressures Burma on Reforms

Analysts say Burma cannot wait on reforms after winning the ASEAN chair.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
burma-asean-theinsein-305.gif Burmese President Thein Sein (C) arrives in Indonesia's Bali island resort to attend an ASEAN summit, Nov. 16.

The ASEAN group and the West seldom see eye to eye on Burma. So when the regional group all but decided this week to allow the once-pariah nation to chair the body despite Western concerns, there was little surprise.

Still, the world has been watching whether the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is a member, will agree to the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein's request to let the country head the grouping in 2014.

By getting the ASEAN chairmanship, Burma emerges from decades of international diplomatic isolation imposed on it for the brutal rule and human rights abuses of the military junta, which gave up power after elections a year ago.     

The ASEAN chairmanship will require Burma to host the 10-nation annual summit as well as the broader East Asia Summit in three years, which could see leaders of 18 nations, including the U.S president, traveling to the country's much-shunned capital Naypyidaw.

The ASEAN foreign ministers, meeting in Indonesia's Bali resort this week, have said that the Burmese government deserves the chairmanship for the reforms implemented by Thein Sein's government, however fledgling they are.

But the United States and the European Union feel any decision to offer the chair could scuttle key demands for the release of all remaining political prisoners and the holding of critical peace talks to end a long-running war with armed ethnic groups.

The two Western powers have not yet lifted political and economic sanctions imposed for decades on Burma that discourage investments critical to kick-start the backward but resource-rich economy.

Exile groups

Similar to the Western stand, Burmese exile groups believe that Thein Sein, a former general who was part of the very same military junta accused of rights abuses, could—at the prodding of his ex-army buddies—slow or even halt the reform process once his government gets the ASEAN chairmanship.

"What concerns Burmese exiles and others monitoring the government is that we're watching a scripted facade; that Naypyidaw is playing a duplicitous game for world sympathy to help entrench its control of the country," said a recent editorial in the Irrawaddy, an online magazine run by Burmese exile journalists.

"Its immediate goal is to chair ASEAN—to bolster its standing prior to the next election, due in 2015. The feeling among exile groups in Thailand is that the regime hasn't done enough yet and doesn't deserve the chairmanship of ASEAN [which it was originally scheduled to get in 2016 if the current rotation arrangement is not changed]."

But the jury is still out on this question, especially as the Burmese generals are good at springing surprises.

Didn't they catch both the West and ASEAN flat-footed by first agreeing to hold November elections and then allowing a civilian government—however nominal—to be formed?

The world was equally surprised when Thein Sein unraveled a string of reforms since coming to power: holding dialogues with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, relaxing media controls, releasing several hundred political prisoners, agreeing to hold dialogue with armed ethnic groups, talking to the International Monetary Fund on currency reforms, allowing exiles to return, and amending the constitution to pave the way for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party’s to re-register and contest November by-elections.

Considering the changes so far, the ASEAN decision is not premature and, instead, would spur more reforms by the Thein Sein administration, said David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Washington-based Georgetown University.

"The more they continue with the reform process, the more difficult it is to stop it," he told RFA, with a warning that if the government abandons the process of change, it could draw the wrath of the people.

"Should they stop for some reason, there will be a major outcry in that country."

Steinberg, who has met Aung San Suu Kyi several times including after her release from years of house arrest in November last year, said that Western nations should continue supporting the Burmese government so that change is irreversible.

"They should take steps to let the Burmese know that we are in favor of continuing the reforms by saying positive things about what is happening so far."

U.S. sanctions to stay

 But as far as the United States is concerned, there is no immediate prospect of a lifting of diplomatic and economic sanctions on Burma—at least not before the release of all political prisoners.

The sanctions are contained in various U.S. laws, which have to be repealed by a Congress that is sympathetic to human rights groups, which in turn believe that lifting them would be premature.

Thein Sein himself has declared that the ASEAN decision is going to help him push for more positive changes for Burma, whose official name is Myanmar.

"Myanmar’s path is intricately tied to the needs of our country," said Zaw Htay,  director of Thein Sein's office, in a rare letter published in the Washington Post on Wednesday.

"Washington and the West need to understand that our president is a strong political reformer and that our proposal for Myanmar to assume the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014 would accelerate the process," he said.

"The U.S. government must understand his political situation—for every one step forward, there is a more difficult step back. The West should encourage him, not simply apply pressure without any give in its own positions. Don’t push him into a corner."
He said that as China ascended to the world stage with the Beijing Olympics, the ASEAN chair is Burma's "opportunity to step forward."

With ASEAN and the West holding hard to their positions, it may be premature to say whether ASEAN's longstanding "constructive engagement" policy on Burma or the U.S. policy of "principled engagement" integrating both sanctions and engagement will win the day.

Anonymous says:
Nov 16, 2011 05:31 AM

The comparison of Burma's recent gestures of conciliation with Beijing's 2008 Olympics is ominous. The human rights record of the single-party authoritarian PRC government has worsened since the 2008 Olympics, breaking the promises that the PRC government made to the International Olympic Committee, with the largest crackdown on dissent since the 1989 massacre and crackdown on the Chinese people's movement by the CCP regime. If the Myanmar government is aspiring to follow the lead of the PRC, we could be seeing a reversion to even more harsh police-state tactics in the near future than we saw back when Aung Sang Ssu Kyi was being kept under house arrest all those years. It turns out that Beijing's promises were just window dressing, and that its top priority is to maintain the monopoly of one-party rule in China at any cost. Will Burma's government try to pull off a similar trick as its long-standing authoritarian ally, the PRC?

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