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SOUTHEAST ASIA: ASEAN in Quandary over Burma’s Request to Head Bloc

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 10 2011 (IPS) - The new Burmese government’s request to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by 2014 has given its neighbours a political headache they have decided to put off dealing with till later this year.

But the dilemma that the 10-member regional bloc faces with Burma, or Myanmar as it is also known, is not the same one that had dogged it in the past, when the country’s oppressive record was seen as undermining ASEAN’s international credibility.

This time it is Burma’s slow and controlled transition towards democracy that puts ASEAN in a quandary.

The final statement read by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the end of the 18th ASEAN summit held May 7-8 in Jakarta reflected the new political realities Burma’s neighbours are grappling with. “We considered the proposal of Myanmar to host the ASEAN summit in 2014, in view of its firm commitment to the principles of ASEAN,” the statement said.

“ASEAN leaders do not object in principle to the proposal,” Yudhoyono added during the closing press conference in the Indonesian capital. “But Myanmar, which is the focus of world attention, is expected to continue progress on democracy so when it becomes chair it does not generate negative views.”

Holding out such a diplomatic carrot exposes ASEAN, which Burma joined in 1997, as being more lenient towards member countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Brunei. The latter have chaired ASEAN before, despite lacking the fledgling plural political culture taking shape in Burma following its first general election in two decades last November, ending nearly 50 years of military rule.

That November poll, despite its flaws, paved the way for a small parliamentary opposition to emerge, complemented by the political freedom granted to pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi after seven years under house arrest. The Nobel Peace laureate has resumed her role as a widely respected government critic.

“What differentiates Burma from other countries in ASEAN is not a lack of representative institutions,” said Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and author of ‘The River of Lost Footsteps”, an account of the country’s transformation during British colonialism.

“However flawed the elections, Burma now at least has a semi-elected legislature that includes opposition parties, and opposition figures including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speak openly to the international media,” Thant said.

“This is far from ideal, but it’s certainly no worse, and arguably much better, than several other ASEAN countries,” he explained to IPS. “What differentiates Burma are the continued detention of large number of political prisoners, something that will hopefully change soon; Western sanctions; its extreme poverty; and perhaps most importantly, the unfinished nature of its six decade-long armed conflicts.”

Other Burma watchers also draw attention to the changing political landscape in the country, that hints at a shift away from the dominant grip of the military, headed since the early 1990s by Senior Gen. Than Shwe, and military strongman Ne Win before him.

“There is a diffusion of state power, unlike before, where power was in the hands of one man, Than Shwe and before him Ne Win,” asserts Richard Horsey, a former United Nations official who served in the country.

“Four power blocs are emerging—to balance each other and to compete with each other. They are the military, executive, parliament and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (the political arm of the former junta which triumphed at the polls),” Horsey, the author of a book on forced labour in Burma, told IPS. “Before the Nov. 7 polls, people had to impress Than Shwe to get things approved. But not any more.”

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, has similarly argued for countries to move away from punishing Burma, calling for a policy that “provides much greater support for Myanmar’s people.”

“It would be a mistake to conclude that nothing has changed,” the Crisis Group noted in a March report, “Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape”. “These changes are unlikely to translate into dramatic reforms in the short term, but they provide a new governance context, improving the prospects for incremental reform.”

By contrast, Vietnam and Laos, which have been under the iron grip of communist-ruled governments since the mid-1970s, and Brunei, an absolute monarchy, appear far from opening up to political change. Landlocked Laos had a tightly controlled election for its national assembly on the eve of ASEAN’s 18th summit, where there was no hint of an opposition. The same is expected to follow on May 22 for Vietnam’s national assembly election, say analysts.

Of ASEAN’s other members—Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand—only Indonesia and the Philippines win accolades for having an increasingly open democratic culture. While Cambodia and Singapore are largely one-party, authoritarian states, Thailand’s democracy has been hampered by military interference.

Consequently even trenchant critics of Burma, like Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby, note that the country’s new government has put ASEAN in a spot by making a push to host the 2014 ASEAN summit in its quest for international legitimacy.

“Burma’s new argument is that it is no worse than Vietnam, Laos, Brunei and arguably even Cambodia,” says Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “The government will say they should not be singled out; don’t make us the whipping boy.

“It was easier for ASEAN when things used to be black and white, between the military and Suu Kyi. But now things have faded to grey, and Burma will try to use this ‘grey’ strategy,” he told IPS. “But for us, nothing has changed in Burma.”

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