BANGKOK — The meeting between US President Barack Obama and his Asean counterparts has been mostly well-received, though some misgivings remain.
Obama made a much-anticipated call for the unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s political prisoners during the hour-long summit, apparently reiterating language used during a speech given in Tokyo on Saturday, where he said that the Burmese junta needed to take “clear steps” toward democracy, including the unconditional release of all political prisoners, an end to conflicts with minority groups and a “genuine dialogue” with the opposition and minorities on a “shared vision for the future.”
Burmese opposition groups and political prisoners have backed the move, with Suu Kyi now asking for a meeting with Sen-Gen Than Shwe, the junta strongman, to discuss possible ways to get US sanctions on Burma relaxed.
Obama and Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein—who observers dismiss as a messenger boy— sat four seats apart at the US-Asean meeting, Although the US President’s comments were given to the entire gathering, and not as part of any one-on-one discussion with Thein Sein, they put the State Peace and Development Council on notice that the US is serious about reform, according to Indiana University’s David C. Williams.
Williams is a constitutional law expert who has advised UN Burma envoy Ibrahim Gambari and testified to the US Congress on Burma.
Williams told The Irrawaddy that “Obama’s performance should also reassure those who worried that holding a dialogue with the SPDC would make us appear soft: if anything, Obama’s very public demand in front of the Burmese prime minister was a dramatic repudiation of the regime’s oppressive ways.”
Whether or not Asean can or will supplement the US efforts remains to be seen, The joint US-Asean statement issued after the summit did not mentioned Suu Kyi or political prisoners directly, leading to some disappointment. The US apparently was out voted on its request seeking the inclusion of stronger language in the first draft.
Asean seems divided on how to proceed. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the reference to Suu Kyi and political prisoners was dropped from the statement, because “there is no consensus on this matter.”
Member-states such as Singapore and Thailand do lucrative business with the junta, and others such as Vietnam have come out strongly against any attempt to free Suu Kyi, regarding this as a domestic matter which Asean should not interfere with.
Vietnam may be hedging against any scrutiny of clampdowns on minority religious groups such as Catholics and various Buddhist sects. Indonesia has been more outspoken about the need to free Suu Kyi, but it seems that Asean—despite its new Charter and Human Rights Commission—does not appear to be able to effectively support US efforts to nudge Burma toward reform.
Carlyle Thayer told The Irrawaddy that despite some flaws, the statement is a positive step.
“It is significant that the paragraph on Myanmar in the US-Asean joint statement is one of the longest eclipsed by a paragraph on non-proliferation,” he said.
Thayer is based at the Australian Defense Academy in Canberra. He said the US and Asean now have some bedrock to combine on pushing reform on Burma , saying “The US and Asean reached common ground and agreed on long-term goals.”
It is still not clear whether the US understands just why the junta wants to talk right now, as American diplomat Scott Marciel mentioned when speaking to journalists in Bangkok recently. His boss, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt M Campbell, told a US Congressional hearing on Burma that sanctions have been no more than “modest inconveniences” to the generals, suggesting that getting these removed is not at the top of the junta’s list. This could mean that the US carrots – the removal of sanctions – are not sufficiently enticing to persuade Than Shwe to acquiesce to President Obama’s requests.
On the other hand, when PM Thein Sein addressed the UN General Assembly recently, he made a case for the removal of sanctions, a plea that has been made numerous times in recent months by junta spokespersons.
The Obama administration is clearly seeking ways to get around the impasse. As Andrew Selth put it in a posting on the Lowy Interpreter blog recently: “The Obama administration seems to understand that there are few practical ways for the international community to influence a government that is deeply committed to its self-appointed role in national affairs, does not care for the welfare of its own people, does not observe international norms and is protected by powerful friends and allies.”
Sanctions have been undermined by the condition-free commercial engagement offered by Asean member-states, as well as China, India, South Korea, and to a lesser extent, Japan, to the junta in Naypidaw. A devils advocate might wonder whether the problem is not that the sanctions have been ineffective, rather that they have not been used properly or widely enough. The realpolitik, however, is that neither China, India nor Japan have shown any interest in implementing sanctions on the regime.
The US was unable to get language pushing for Suu Kyi’s release into the joint US-Asean statement. Any notion that the American compromise on talking to the junta might be reciprocated with an Asean compromise on its own aversion to sanctions seems very far-fetched.
Asean has therefore been able to talk up its own failed “constructive engagement” Burma policy, misrepresenting the US “engagement” with the regime as a signal that Washington is admitting that sanctions are at a dead-end. The US has, in fact, stated that sanctions could be ratcheted-up, if the junta does not make concessions in advance of the 2010 elections.
John Dale, a Burma expert at George Mason University, does not think that the US engagement with Burma is a cover to allow it to work more closely with the Asean region in general, to stave off growing Chinese economic and diplomatic clout in Southeast Asia.
However, he said the Obama administration needs to keep its eye on the ball in Burma—that reform is not just about prisoner release or even inclusive national dialogue. He told The Irrawaddy: “Democratic reform is more than free and fair and credible elections. The Obama administration is aware of the grossly undemocratic Constitution that Than Shwe’s administration has drafted.”
Without addressing the Constitution issue, Dale said that the US policy could flounder.
“Can democratic elections, even with the international community’s stamp of approval, produce a democratic outcome in Myanmar [Burma] when the Constitution that it would legitimate is structured to retain military rule with no significant checks and balances? “
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