ASEANs missed opportunity on Burma – ISN

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ASEAN school map marking 40th anniversary

ASEAN school map marking 40th anniversary

ASEAN marks its 40th birthday by caving in to Burma’s junta, while trade and natural resource carrots diminish EU sanction sticks.

Two months after cracking down on pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks, Burma’s military dictatorship remains in control. While many of the estimated 2000 peaceful protestors detained during the unrest have been released, arrests have continued in recent weeks, as the junta catches up with dissident monks on the run since the late September drama.

As Bo Hla Tint, a Washington-based spokesman for the National League of Democracy, (NLD) – the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi – told ISN Security Watch: “Intimidation and smearing of the pro-democracy movement and the protestors is continuing, and military offensives are proceeding in ethnic minority regions, in Shan and Karen areas.”

In the weeks since the protests, the military junta has refused to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross access to political prisoners, while hosting visits from UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, as well as a UN human rights delegate.

However, these visits have yielded little in terms of progress toward democratization. After the junta reneged on the 1990 elections in which the NLD was the clear winner, a seven-step program to democracy was drawn up by the ruling generals. Even after the protests last month, the first step of this is barely completed, well over a decade after the blueprint was drawn up.

Paper tiger

Some cautious optimism was parroted in diplomatic circles prior to last week’s Singapore-held Association of South East Asian States (ASEAN) summit, but the regime succeeded in showing the 40-year old regional grouping up as a paper tiger.

Save for a broadside fired at the junta by Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, ASEAN’s non-interference custom resulted in a cringe-worthy climb down when General Than Shwe’s jungle-ensconced clique forced the cancellation of a Burma situation report, which was due to be given to ASEAN and delegates from China, Japan and South Korea by Gambari.

Aung Zaw is editor of The Irrawaddy, a Southeast Asia news and analysis magazine based in Thailand and run by Burmese exiles. He told ISN Security Watch that “the junta wants Burma’s protests to be classed as a purely internal affair, and that it alone should deal directly with the UN. I was disappointed that the briefing did not go ahead.”

The summit marked ASEAN’s coming of middle-age, and culminated with signing of a charter laying out the grouping’s goals of economic integration, democracy and protection of the environment. The proposed blueprint, which could turn ASEAN into a rules-based entity akin to the EU, has been floating around since the 1970s. Still, despite last week’s fanfare, implementation remains distant.

Ratification in Manila, for instance, could prove difficult. President Arroyo was quoted in Filipino media as saying: “Let me be clear. We embrace the advances of ASEAN but remain concerned about the pace of progress of Myanmar on the issue of human rights. We particularly deplore the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi. She must be released, now.” But as an aside, Arroyo is increasingly unpopular at home, so whether or not lawmakers rally behind her call for reform in Rangoon remains unclear.

Burma joined ASEAN a decade ago, but membership has had little impact on human rights, democratization and governance in a country under the military jackboot since 1962.

Communist Laos and Vietnam, along with authoritarian Cambodia, are thought to have supported the junta’s intransigence at least week’s summit. Thailand – itself now under military rule, pending 23 December elections – depends heavily on Burmese gas for electricity. And Singaporean and Malaysian companies have extensive commercial interests in Burma – sufficient to ensure little resistance from either to the Burmese dictatorship’s diktats.

Toying with sanctions

ASEAN further honed its appeasement of the errant member-state by rejecting calls for sanctions to be imposed on the regime before rebuffing US suggestions that Burma be threatened with expulsion from ASEAN, minus democratic reforms.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that “Not only will they [sanctions] not work, but they will be counterproductive,” citing South Africa as the sole example of a positive outcome to sanctions.

However, Bo Hla Tint, a seat-winner in Burma’s 1990 elections, told ISN Security Watch “the military is not immune to international pressure. Targeted sanctions touching the pockets of the generals are what is needed. We are asking the EU and the US to cooperate on this.”

Whether even coordinated EU and US sanctions could have an impact on the junta, minus a change in thinking by Beijing and New Delhi, remains doubtful. However, the ASEAN role could prove crucial – Thailand, not China is Burma’s biggest trading partner. Bo Hal Tint added that if the EU, US and ASEAN coordinated on sanctions and policy against the junta, China and India could follow.

However, Burmese resources and investment opportunities remain “attractive to ASEAN members,” as Aung Zaw told ISN Security Watch.

They are attractive also to China and India – who have been wrestling for access to Burma’s gas fields, the country’s single largest revenue source and money-spinner behind the vast military budget keeping the junta in control in Burma.

“We should be patient,” China’s Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei told a news conference the week before the ASEAN summit. “We especially disapprove of sanctions. Sanctions cannot solve the problem, and will only make matters worse.”

However, EU foreign ministers have approved new sanctions against Burma: a ban on timber imports (Burma has an estimated 60 percent of the world’s teak), gemstones (Burma holds the world’s largest known quantities of rubies and jade) and precious metals. These were on top of an existing travel ban on Burmese officials, an arms embargo and an EU-wide junta asset freeze.

But these measures will hardly force French oil company Total to renege on its Burmese gas ventures, much as US sanctions have not forced Chevron to reconsider operations in the resource-laden country.

To compare, US sanctions on Sudan prevent oil companies from accessing lucrative oil fields there, and a recent private divestment campaign has focused shareholder attention on potential links between pension funds and companies potentially funding – even by proxy – violence in Darfur.

In October, shareholders withdrew over US$200 million of European pension funds invested in Total after the bloody September crackdown across Burma. But later that month, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner – also founder of the relief agency Medecins Sans Frontiers, told reporters in Bangkok that if Total withdrew, other companies would simply move in and replace them without any positive impact on governance in Burma.

But no aversion to EU sanctions could deter ASEAN from talking trade with Brussels. Summit host Lee Hsien Loong said that “while Myanmar is undoubtedly a significant issue, ASEAN-EU relations should not be held hostage by it. [There are] many areas in which we can cooperate for mutual benefit and the EU should take a broader strategic interest in ASEAN.”

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the EU had a “carrot and stick” approach to Burma, backing UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari and imposing “smart sanctions.” She added that the EU was not trying to link the Myanmar issue to negotiations for a free trade agreement, noting that the trade talks would take a long time.

The US has been more robust, rhetorically at least, threatening to scupper a trade and investment pact signed last year with ASEAN.

Susan Schwab, Washington’s trade czar, said that “ASEAN has a special responsibility when it comes to the situation in Burma. The reputation and credibility of ASEAN as an organization had been called into question because of the situation in Burma.”

However, some European parliamentarians appeared to dissent from the EU Commission policy. A group of MEPs led by Hartmut Nassauer responded to the move to push ahead with trade talks by stating that these should be shelved pending reform in Burma.

Bo Hal Tint told ISN Security Watch that it was “a double standard for the EU to want free trade but not pressure those who can in turn influence the junta. We want the EU to use every influence they have with those who prop up the junta in Burma – ASEAN. However, we appreciate the EU move to impose smart sanctions.”

Implicit in the US and MEP stance is the notion that ASEAN has real and unused leverage with the misnamed Myanmar State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the Burmese military dictatorship calls itself.

Burma values its ASEAN membership – not least as it offers leeway to a medium-sized country sandwiched between China and India – admittedly key investors in and clients of the junta. ASEAN economic growth prospects will benefit from enhanced market access to the EU and US. Thus, ASEAN could do its part to compel the junta to return to civilian rule – if it was made clear by the West that Burma is the reason why ASEANs economic dynamos cannot access western markets.

As such, the EU Commission failure to link ASEAN trade talks with reform in Burma marks a missed opportunity to lean on Shwe and his cronies – if only by proxy.

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