Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights | Analysis

Asian Allies Back Burma Uneasily

Analysis by Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, Apr 25 2011 (IPS) - Already Burma’s new civilian government poses problems for its Asian allies as it tries to woo the international community. The month-old quasi-civilian administration, led by President Thein Sein has launched a new diplomatic charm offensive in an effort to get international approval for the cosmetic changes that have been introduced under the guise of a new civilian government.

The President’s first priority is to ensure that the region endorses the changes – and in a move to consolidate that, the Thein Sein has already written to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan, renewing their bid to become chairman of the organisation.

It is the first salvo in a new diplomatic offensive to secure regional and international credibility for the new government and reduce its international isolation.

“The Thein Sein regime is desperate for international recognition,” said Win Min, a Burmese academic currently based in the United States. “It’s crucial for them to gain credibility and a measure of respectability for their new so-called civilian government.”

But this diplomatic offensive on the part of the Burmese leaders will inevitably increase tension between the West, which still supports sanctions against the regime, and Asia, which is keen to integrate Burma into the region’s economy and strategic structures. Burma’s diplomatic initiatives are only likely to intensify the divisions between Asia and the West – especially the U.S. – on how to cope with the problems posed by Burma’s strategic aims.

While the U.S. appointed a special envoy, Derek Mitchell, and the European Union’s revised visa restrictions on government ministers may signal a new preparedness to deal with the new Burmese government, what Burma wants more than tacit recognition, is approval and support, especially from the region.

Immediately after being sworn in as President, Thein Sein wrote to the ASEAN secretariat asking the organisation to accept Burma’s bid to become chairman in 2014.

In 2004, Burma skipped the chance to become chairman in 2006, amid international pressure on the group to reject Burma’s turn to chair the regional bloc. Now the government is anxious to take its turn again – and wants ASEAN’s approval at the forthcoming ASEAN summit in Indonesia next month.

But some of Burma’s neighbours remain wary of being used as a pawn in Burma’s global mission to prove the new government represents a significant change – from a naked military dictatorship to pluralist power structure.

The bottom line for many countries in the region is that Burma has always been a thorn in ASEAN’s side, ever since it joined in 1997, and has been a major obstacle to smoother and deeper relations with its strategic partners, especially Europe and the United States.

The emergence of a new civilian government under President Thein Sein has only complicated the situation, especially as the new Burmese administration seeks to get the region’s approval and bolster its international credibility as a legitimately elected government.

China has already been very supportive – and a senior Chinese political leader was the first international visitor to Naypyidaw, only days after the new regime was sworn in. But it is ASEAN approval that Burma craves.

At the ASEAN summit in Hanoi last year Thein Sein – then under Than Shwe’s instructions – pushed for Burma to be given the chairmanship in 2011. The top general’s aim was to have ASEAN endorse the new civilian government by giving it the ASEAN chairmanship. But the request was rejected – and Indonesia, Cambodia and Brunei were conferred as the next three chairs – leaving 2014 as the earliest Burma could expect to become the head of the organisation.

This was a clear message to Burma that concrete change was expected before the new government could become the chairman of ASEAN. It was the only way we could communicate our irritation at being kept in the dark over the planned elections and political change, the ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan told Inter Press Service in an interview in Hanoi immediately after the meeting.

“ASEAN is very much interested in the peaceful national reconciliation in Myanmar and whatever happens there will have implications in ASEAN, positive or negative,” he said.

Now the countries of ASEAN have been left in a deepening quandary. They want to pressure the Burmese government to become more democratic and transparent while maintaining whatever influence they have on the regime.

“We have to continue to engage with the Myanmar government,” Thailand’s Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva told correspondents in Bangkok recently. “If we hadn’t that stance, the situation inside the country would be much worse.”

Now it seems the issue of Burma’s chairmanship of ASEAN has returned to haunt the organisation – as it did more than ten years ago. But it is the only leverage the countries of the region have over the regime in Naypyidaw.

“Bullying, coaxing and admonishing them has had no effect,” an Asia diplomat with long contact with the top Burmese leadership said. “If we push too hard they will simply close the door on us, or worse, leave the organisation unilaterally.”

The chairmanship of the organisation may be the only clout ASEAN has with the Burmese regime. But more importantly ASEAN also knows that relations with their main strategic partners – especially Australia, the EU and the U.S. – will almost inevitably be put at risk.

Washington has already chipped into the controversy indicating it would be reluctant to work closely with Burma as its chair. “Obviously, we would have concerns about Burma in any kind of leadership role because of their poor human rights record and domestically,” the State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, recently told reporters in Washington.

So Burma’s diplomatic charm offensive may have already further fuelled the furore between the West and Asia over how to handle Burma; and instead of reducing tension between the two spheres, Burma’s so-called civilian government may have only become another bone of contention between them.

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