Suu Kyi verdict: reaction divided – The Irrawaddy


John Yettaw (AFP)

John Yettaw (AFP)

As Aung San Suu Kyi returns to face another 18 months of house arrest, regional and global reactions have followed, highlighting a lack of international unity on her conviction and return to house arrest.

In somewhat of a surprise and perhaps indicating a difference in tone between US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and that of his predecessor, the European Union (EU) reacted with the most vigor.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy specifically mentioned targeting Burma’s timber and gemstone exports for increased sanctions, while the European Parliamentary caucus on Burma said there should be a global arms embargo against the junta.

While President Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both denounced the verdict, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington that it was “premature” to consider UN sanctions against Burma, perhaps awaiting some consensus at the UN Security Council. However, the US had already renewed its sanctions against the junta some weeks ago, a hardball counter to Secretary Clinton’s offer to relax sanctions should Suu Kyi be released, as the UN Security Council originally requested in May.

A UNSC meeting called by the French on the matter ended in uncertainty on Tuesday, as China, Russia and Asean-member Vietnam sought more time to deliberate on a draft proposal circulated by the US.

China, perhaps Burma’s strongest ally, had earlier said that the world should respect the sovereign right of the junta to rule on internal matters, while India, which competes with Beijing for trade and investment links with the junta, has not made any official comment on the verdict at the time of writing.

With Burma being an Asean-member state, it was unclear how strongly the regional bloc would officially react to the verdict.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told The Irrawaddy: “I think Asean should take a lead, but Asean itself is put in a difficult position. It cannot kick Burma out because it would demonstrate that Asean, too, has failed. Asean should come up with a new “regional policy” which should be the right mix between sanction and engagement.”

Beating the UN to the punch, Asean released a statement on Burma on Wednesday, through Thailand, which holds the current chair. It reacted with what some international media summarized as “regrets,” “disappointment” and “condemnation.”

The statement was released after some regional states had announced their own reactions to the verdict. The Malaysian foreign minister said, “I think there is a need for Asean foreign ministers to have an urgent meeting to discuss this issue, which is of grave concern.”

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Asean statement, however, was its affirmation that, “We stand ready to cooperate with the Myanmar [Burma] Government in its efforts to realize the seven steps to democracy and remain constructively engaged with Myanmar in order to build the Asean Community together.”

Earlier Asean had said that Suu Kyi should be released as part of the “free, fair and inclusive general elections [in 2010] that will then pave the way for Myanmar’s full integration into the international community.”

The junta has already ruled that Suu Kyi cannot participate in elections, due to her marriage to a British academic. Her continued detention will mean she cannot appear in public during the electoral period.

Given that many Asean states have close economic links with Burma—with Thailand dependent on the country for gas imports—it remains unlikely that regional consensus on economic sanctions is likely.

As an alternative, “Asean could declare support for a UN arms embargo. It avoids controversial economic sanctions, and as far as we know, they don’t sell arms to Burma anyway,” told Mark Farmaner, the head of the Burma UK Campaign group.

Individually, some Asean states have taken a more defined unilateral approach.

“The government of Indonesia is strongly disappointed with the verdict handed down to Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah, who added, “The length of the sentence was apparently aimed at preventing Suu Kyi from taking part in next year’s elections. The verdict leads to suspicions that the coming election will not be inclusive and far from credible.”

NGOs and human rights groups in Indonesia reacted strongly to the verdict, and if Indonesia’s democracy is functioning as well as many analysts believe, this could translate into a more decisive and forthright Indonesian policy on Burma.

However, other Asean states have been more circumspect, notably Singapore, whose foreign minister was quoted as saying: “What can we do? Can we use force? Can we use trade sanctions? The Europeans and the Americans have done their worst, it has not worked.”

Perhaps Asean states with close links to the junta could do just that. Sunny Tanuwidjaja of Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies criticized Asean’s unflinchingly incremental approach to Burma.

He told The Irrawaddy: “The best thing Asean can do is two things: put Burma’s Asean membership and their economic links to Burma at stake.”

Burma specialist Sean Turnell of the Burma Economic Watch in Sidney said Asean states could look more closely at their own economic links to the junta, if they are serious about pushing for change in Burma.

“Asean must be getting sick and tired of the junta, which is tarnishing the regional brand,” he said. “Activists and NGOs would be better-off focusing on Asean and on the other trading partners, notably China and India.”

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