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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: Leaders Take Softly, Softly Approach to Burma

Larry Jagan

HANOI, Apr 10 2010 (IPS) - South-east Asian leaders did not push Burma’s junta too hard at their just- finished annual summit, hoping that a more subtle approach would nudge it to make sure the elections planned for later this year are credible.

The 10-country Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) took this approach despite international concern about the election, which the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has decided to boycott.

“Quiet diplomacy works much better,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told IPS on the sidelines of the Apr. 8-9 summit here in the Vietnamese capital. “In private we can be more frank and forceful, without them appearing to be under pressure,” he said.

In the past, Burma’s regime complained about Thailand’s ‘megaphone diplomacy’ when former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai tried to encourage political change during the era of former military intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt.

After Khin Nyunt was toppled in October 2004, the junta has been extremely loath to openly discuss political developments even with its Asian allies.

But several countries in ASEAN – especially Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand – are intent on pressing the regime, at least privately, to make sure the election does not embarrass the regional grouping that has continually defended the junta publicly.

“We continue to remind the Myanmar government of their promises to hold elections which are internationally acceptable,” said Natalegawa.

While Burma was high on the agenda at the informal and private sessions of the annual ASEAN summit, the group’s official statement made only a passing reference to Burma and the polls. The vote is expected to be in October or November, but the date has not yet been formally announced.

“We underscored the importance of national reconciliation in Myanmar (Burma) and the holding of the general election in a free, fair and inclusive manner, thus contributing to Myanmar’s stability and development,” said the ASEAN Chairman’s statement at the end of the summit.

“The elections should be free and democratic, with the participation of all parties involved, and lead to real national reconciliation,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who chaired the summit, told journalists at the final press conference. “This would help stabilise the country, creating a base for economic development.”

This is the mildest ASEAN statement for nearly a decade, avoiding mention of the NLD or Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma was also allowed to get off relatively unscathed as the proceedings were overshadowed by the political problems engulfing Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who could not even come to the summit.

This suited the Vietnamese, who were at pains to make sure that the reference to Burma was as mild as possible, according to diplomats at the summit who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Vietnam is not interested in the politics. They simply see Burma as an investment opportunity,” said a Vietnamese journalist. A sign of this is the newly opened direct air link between Hanoi and Moulmein.

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the Vietnamese prime minister visited Burma shortly before the summit. Hanoi is keen to woo Burma away from its main supporter Beijing, and has been advising its leaders to engage Washington.

Burma is at a crucial juncture and Indonesia has offered its help and experience to it, said Indonesia’s Natalegawa. Indonesia itself has only recently gone through this painful process and can sympathise with Burma, he said, referring to its transition to democracy after the 1998 downfall of the dictator Suharto.

“Our first democratic elections in 1999 were far from perfect. We too had seats reserved for the military in parliament,” he reflected. “But each election since has been better and better. The transition to democracy is a process, and what Myanmar is doing is starting the long journey to democracy with these elections.”

“The coming months will be critical months for Myanmar,” Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo told journalists at the summit. “But in the end, what happens in Myanmar is for the Myanmar people to decide. We are outsiders… we hope that they would make progress quickly.”

“We hope these elections will provide a mechanism for true national reconciliation,” ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said in an interview. “And we are ready to offer assistance, help and support.”

The junta has shunned the idea of international observers or monitors. “Obviously an election, as we had in Indonesia in 1999, is more ideal if it can be experienced by foreign friends,” Natalegawa told IPS.

In 1999, Indonesia allowed monitors to observe its first free election after the Suharto era. “But we should avoid the use of monitors or observers,” he said. “The idea of having someone experience the election is more useful.”

But ASEAN leaders are well aware that they have very little influence on the regime. “We are not in a position to punish Myanmar,” said Yeo. “If China and India remain engaged with Myanmar, then we have to.”

But the leaders may also be getting tired of the regime’s unwillingness to open. “All we were told by the Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein was that there would be elections this year, the five laws controlling the process have been published, and the political parties are now registering,” Surin said.

When the Election Commission has completed preparations, it will announce the poll date, Surin said. “We were given no other details.” He mused: “On the Myanmar issue, we just have to have patience.

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