(I am taking a break from commenting on Middle East issues to focus on something closer to home. But I have not forgotten about the tragic war in Lebanon, and hope to return to this topic when I feel I can value add with further thoughts.)
ASEAN governments had long hoped that by hiding behind their euphemism called “constructive engagement” of the Myanmar generals, the US and EU would go easy on Myanmar and ASEAN, and business could carry on as usual. However, this has proven not to be the case, and it has forced ASEAN to re-evaluate its approach towards Myanmar.
Myanmar’s lack of democratic progress and continued detention of over 1,100 political prisoners, including democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has made it a thorn in the flesh for ASEAN. The grouping’s relations with important trading partners, the EU and the US, have been hampered by Myanmar’s membership in ASEAN. Inter-regional meetings with the EU have been downgraded in representation, and US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice skipped last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, ostensibly because of Myanmar’s presence.
This has led to ASEAN asserting itself much more on Myanmar, despite its longstanding principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its members. Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said June that “no country can claim that gross human rights violations are its own internal affair”. The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC), of which Singapore is represented by our very able MP (Pasir Ris-Punggol) Charles Chong, has been issuing louder calls for ASEAN to take a tougher stance on Myanmar. Myanmar’s decision to give up its chairmanship of ASEAN last year was in no small part due to pressure from fellow ASEAN members.
Last week, current ASEAN chairman Malaysia issued an unusually scathing rebuke of Myanmar’s military regime in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar just days before the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Kuala Lumpur. A few days later, ASEAN, which usually does not make strong public statements on Myanmar, also issued an unprecedented call for “tangible progress” towards “democracy in the near future”.
Does all this mean that ASEAN is moving away from its policy of “constructive engagement” of the reclusive regime? It depends how one looks at it.
Myanmar is important to ASEAN unity, particularly as the grouping is making significant strides towards regional economic integration. Booting Myanmar out of ASEAN is probably out of the question, as it is almost impossible to do so within the current ASEAN framework. Furthermore, it would be an admission that ASEAN was wrong to admit Myanmar in the first place. If Myanmar were to withdraw from ASEAN, it might give both ASEAN and the Myanmar generals some breathing space, but it will not benefit the cause for democratisation there, nor will it help the thousands of political prisoners and oppressed ethnic minorities in the country. Their cause would just be forgotten.
Although the Myanmar generals would surely have taken note of the more hard-line sentiment of ASEAN leaders, the key to political change in Myanmar lies not with ASEAN, the West or even the people of Myanmar. We will see no tangible progress in Myanmar until India and China apply political and economic pressure on it. However, this is highly unlikely given Myanmar’s geo-strategic importance to both powers, especially vis-à-vis each other. Myanmar knows its position is secure as long as it continues to play its two powerful neighbours off each other.
Once again, we see how human decency takes a back seat to strategic considerations of major powers.