Asean & Burma: Getting Beyond Spin, Addressing Substance – The Irrawaddy




BANGKOK —  With the US announcing its Burma policy review on Sept 28, the focus now switches to the Asean summit to be held in Thailand next week. It appears that the regional bloc has been handed a golden opportunity to affect developments in Burma – by working more closely with a US that is “back” in southeast Asia –  as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton remarked in Phuket in July.

The US is retaining sanctions on the Burmese regime, to the chagrin of many Asean nations, which do business with the junta and have urged an end to sanctions. However the US has started talking to the junta, the onset of what Assistant Secretary Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell regards as likely to be “a long, slow and step-by-step process.”

In his Senate testimony on Burma, Campbell referred only to “direct, senior-level dialogue with representatives of the Burmese leadership,” while mentioning consultation with the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Burmese opposition. Suu Kyi’s response was to welcome the prospect of bilateral talks, supplemented by her request that the US to “engage” with the political opposition in Burma, as well as the regime.

In the two weeks since the US announced the review, Aung San Suu Kyi has met twice with a regime envoy and separately with diplomats from the US, Australian and UK embassies. This meeting was “strictly focused on sanctions,” according to diplomats who attended, and possibly follows from her offer to Snr-Gen Than Shwe to help negotiate an end to sanctions.

With Suu Kyi apparently offering an olive branch to the junta, Asean has been handed a clear opportunity to press for a quid pro quo by at least joining international requests that Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 political prisoners be released from incarceration, and perhaps backing the NLD’s request for a review of the controversial 2008 Constitution, which will perpetuate military rule irrespective of the 2010 elections.

However, Asean and its member states have so far been silent on what can or should happen next. Whether anything of note happens at the Asean summit to be held at Cha-am in Thailand from Oct. 23-25 remains to be seen. A spokesperson at the Thai Foreign Ministry told The Irrawaddy that there is no specific session or meeting set up to discuss Burma, though he expects that “issues relating to Myanmar will arise during the various sessions.”

While this is likely in deference to the junta, and part of Asean’s characteristic reluctance to interfere in the internal politics of member states, it overlooks the reality that what is taking place in Burma has a direct impact on at least some of the fellow Asean members. Moreover, it is perhaps at odds with strategic realities as understood by Thai policymakers, who will host the summit.

Speaking at a seminar held by the ISIS at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok last week, Kittiphong Na Ranong, the director-general of the Department of East Asian Affairs in Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, said that issues such as energy security, a shared border, people movement and narcotics make for a complex bilateral relationship between Burma and Thailand, which is the current Asean chair and will host the upcoming summit.

Thailand depends heavily on Burma for gas imports and electricity needs. Thailand hosts up to 4 million Burmese migrant workers, and now awaits the next developments in Burma’s volatile ethnic politics, which could see the junta go to war with some of the more formidable cease-fire groups, such as the Kachin Independence Organization and United Wa State Army. While the Thai government would not relish the thousands of refugees the fighting would doubtless generate, it may tacitly support actions against narcotics-peddling militias close to the Thai borders.

Given that the junta’s looming war with the cease-fire groups is entwined with Burma’s pre-election Constitutional politics, and thereby with the fate of Suu Kyi and the other political opposition, Burma’s “internal matters” have a direct bearing on regional security issues. A statement issued by the Thai Foreign Ministry on Sept. 30, titled “Views of Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand on the Latest Development Regarding Myanmar,” said that free and fair elections in Burma “will help bring about stability and prosperity to the region as a whole.”

The potential spillover will affect Malaysia as well, which could see an upsurge in Burmese asylum seekers and migrants depending on how the Burma-Thailand National Verification process pans out. According to Suaram, a human rights NGO based in Malaysia, the authorities sometimes couch their refusal to sign the Asean protocol on migrant workers and the 1951 UN refugees convention in their belief that excess foreign workers constitute a national security threat.

Therefore at least some Asean-member states have good reason—by virtue of narrow self-interest at least—to up the ante with the junta at next week’s summit. The US bases its policy review partly on similar inclinations, as Kurt Campbell put it in his Senate testimony—“We have decided to engage with Burma because we believe it is in our interest to do so.”

Because the new US policy is seen as a retreat from the previous “hard-line” sanctions-only template, Thailand will not lobby for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, according Kraisak Choonhavan, a Democrat MP and current chair of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus. The Sept. 30 Thai Foreign Ministry statement welcomed the recent release of some political prisoners, but merely added that “more action is needed in order to create an environment conducive to achieving a political system with full participation, as well as the sustainable long-term, socio-economic development of Myanmar.”

However Kraisak told The Irrawaddy that in his opinion Thailand should be more forceful with the junta, as the US policy “has not really changed that much, but appears to have been misunderstood by some governments.” He said that lifting sanctions “should not be an option at this stage,” and that “apart from Indonesia, the international community has become complacent and lost impetus over Burma.”

Speaking to The Irrawaddy, Indonesia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah reiterated Jakarta’s view that the junta should “release Aung San Suu Kyi as soon as possible.” He said that the impetus for the US review on Burma came after Secretary Clinton’s visit to Jakarta in early February and added that his government will ask the Burmese junta to respond positively to the new US policy.

If the Asean leaders display sufficient will to face down their Burmese counterparts, next week’s Asean summit could generate some timely momentum. US President Barack Obama is due in Singapore in November for the next Apec Summit. He will have a separate meeting with the Asean member of Apec, described by his press aide Robert Gibbs as “the first-ever meeting between a US president and leaders of the 10 Southeast Asian nations that make up the Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.” Speaking last week, Gibbs “believes” that the junta will not be at any US-Asean meeting in Singapore.

However, the US may need to clarify its aims, objectives and expectations in advance of this meeting—or at least correct some of the misperceptions doing the rounds about its Burma policy review.

Michael J. Green is senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and was senior director for Asian affairs on the US National Security Council. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, he explained that “the problem is that these statements of policy (such as the Burma review) have been overshadowed by conflicting signals sent in speeches by the president or decisions like not inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House.”

Kraisak told The Irrawaddy that “there is confusion over the US Burma policy,” while Debbie Stothard, the director of Altsean, said, “The US needs to be vigorous and consistent in its approach. We do not see any change in Burma policy, but the rhetoric about engagement seems to be dominating the perception of what the US will do, creating an impression that it is becoming more tolerant of oppressive regimes.”

Green believes that “states in Asean are moving away from their own very healthy debate about how to implement the human rights standards in the association’s new charter and focusing on getting the United States to change its policy instead.”

Therefore, some Asean governments may see the US engagement as partly a retreat on commitments to human rights and democracy in Burma, and by extension, Southeast Asia in general, where only Indonesia ranks as a full democracy.

The foreign ministries of Singapore and the Philippines declined to comment on Burma to The Irrawaddy. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government recently launched renewed clampdowns on journalists and minority Buddhist groups. This does not bode well for any breakthrough at the Asean summit next week.

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