An earful but no arm-twisting – The Irrawaddy

Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) reportedly laid into their Burmese counterpart Nyan Win in Hanoi, signaling the bloc’s frustration and embarrassment at the junta’s election plans. However, the specifics of the criticism were not spelled out by Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan.

The criticism also failed to find its way into the mild official Asean statement issued after the ministerial meeting, which contained a single paragraph on Burma with no mention of Aung San Suu Kyi or the rest of the 2,200-plus political prisoners currently incarcerated inside the country.

Conspicuously absent were any references to recent restrictions on campaigning announced by the junta’s electoral commission or the apparent breach of the electoral laws by the junta’s own party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which seems to be illegally using state resources as it fills the shoes of the government’s defunct Union Solidarity and Development Association, a 27-million member junta-led mass movement.

It sounds all to similar to the Asean summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, last October, when a lengthy communique issued by the bloc’s leaders similarly devoted just paragraph to Burma, omitting key details about lack of freedom of association, media and free speech that stymie the prospects of the country’s elections being free and fair.

It is not clear whether or not real pressure is being put on the Burmese rulers to allow Asean observers into the country for the upcoming elections.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo told reporters in Hanoi, “We suggested quite strongly to our Myanmar colleagues that they consider having Asean observers at the elections.”

Some foreign presence in Burma will be reduced after July 31, after Asean foreign Ministers agreed officially to end the operations of the Asean Humanitarian Task Force for the Victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the Tripartite Core Group (comprising the government, Asean and the United Nations).

Asean expects the election date to be announced soon, amid speculation that it may be put back to December, after the November release date scheduled for Aung San Suu Kyi. Either way, Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natelagawa said in Hanoi, “We were informed that once the registration process of the political parties is completed, the election date would be announced.”

In the meantime, Asean has announced more cooperation on soft-focus issues such as humanitarian intervention and disaster relief, taking attention away from inaction over Burma.

The expectation is that more pressure will come once foreign ministers from the US, Australia and elsewhere join the meeting before the weekend. However, it may well be that Burma’s domestic issues are sidelined as the focus turns to broader security issues. After the inaugural US-Asean summit in Singapore last November, the joint statement did not include any specifics about prisoner release or specific reform measures needed in advance of the elections, the laws for which were subsequently announced in early 2010.

Amid renewed allegations that the Burmese regime is teaming up with North Korea on nuclear research and weapons importation, the US is likely to raise these issues quite strongly, risking a confrontation with China.

Tensions between the Koreas are high following the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors following the sinking of a warship blamed on Pyongyang earlier this year, for which the North denied involvement and was exonerated in a UN report recently, which condemned the attack but fell short of blaming Pyongyang.

US-South Korea naval exercises scheduled for the Yellow Sea next week may prove another bone of contention between Washington-Seoul and Beijing-Pyongyang. The US secretary of state will travel to Vietnam after visiting South Korea, as US-led military exercises take place in neighboring Cambodia.

It may well be that if Burma becomes a key discussion point during the meeting of the broader Asean Regional Forum which will take place before the weekend, it will be in the context of its relations with North Korea and the broader rivalries involving the US and China.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |

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