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Burma to Remain Focus of Attention at ASEAN Summit, but Tangible Moves for Reform Unlikely

  • Ron Corben

Burma, which agreed to step back from taking up the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2006, remains a thorn in the side of the group. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, as ASEAN leaders prepare for their annual summit in Kuala Lumpur this month, they are being pushed to confront Burma's repressive government.

Eight years after it joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Burma's failure to make substantial progress on political and human rights reforms is increasing its isolation in the world, and causing headaches for ASEAN.

In a break with ASEAN's tradition of not interfering with a member's internal affairs, some member states have begun urging Burma to speed reform efforts.

The issue became critical this year, because many Western governments protested plans for Burma to take over ASEAN's rotating chair next year. The United States and the European Union, among others, threatened to boycott ASEAN events if Burma held the chairmanship.

In July, Burma announced it would skip its turn as chairman.

Still, ASEAN leaders remain under pressure at home and abroad to confront Burma's repressive government. However, there is little expectation that the group will directly deal with the issue at its annual summit this month in Kuala Lumpur.

Zaid Ibrahim is a Malaysian member of parliament and president of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Burma - a group of politicians from around Southeast Asia. Mr. Zaid doubts that ASEAN will push Burma very hard, in part because they would rather not risk causing instability in Rangoon.

"The issue on Burma is quite simple. The question is whether the ASEAN governments are keen to see democracy in place in Burma," he said. "If they are then they have to do something. If they are not then we cannot expect much from that."

The military has ruled Burma since 1962. The generals allowed elections to be held in 1990, and the opposition National League for Democracy scored an overwhelming victory. But the NLD and its leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, were never allowed to take power. Thousands of the party's supporters were jailed or forced into exile, and Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the past 15 years under house arrest.

There are calls for the United Nations Security Council to condemn Burma for its human rights record.

But many human rights watchers think Burma expects ASEAN to reward it for giving up the chairmanship by sheltering it from international pressure.

Sunai Pasuk, with the group Human Rights Watch, says Rangoon has ensured ASEAN's support against U.N. action.

"It is too bad that countries in Southeast Asia - all neighboring countries of Burma - chose not to be part of this [U.N.] proposal. They chose to take sides with the military regime in Rangoon against the new initiative of the international community," said Sunai Pasuk.

In November, ASEAN leaders rebuffed Bush administration calls for new pressure on Burma.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said confronting Burma is not "the ASEAN way."

Indeed, the fact that any ASEAN governments have criticized Burma at all, even mildly, is a sharp change from the group's policy of non-interference.

That change may reflect the fact that several ASEAN countries have become more democratic and have evolved away from the authoritarian governments many had when the group was founded in 1967.

There are divisions within ASEAN on how to deal with Burma. Members such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia support behind-the-scenes moves to push reform. But others - such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos - stand by the non-interference policy.

Carl Thayer, a political scientist at the Australian Defense Force Academy, says ASEAN needs to find a common position on Burma, because it must be seen by other nations, such as the United States and the European Union, as doing something to push reforms. Otherwise, there could be even greater international pressure on Burma.

"ASEAN has to find a consensus between its poles - the poles of those wanting to really push Myanmar and saying 'It's unacceptable and you've got to democratize to a certain extent,' and those that uphold the principle of non-interference," he said.

Professor Thayer expects quiet diplomatic pressure to continue to avoid violating ASEAN's "existing norms".

Not all have given up hope for a more direct approach.

The United Nations special human rights envoy on Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, recently said he believes ASEAN and other Asian countries have a key role in promoting reform in Rangoon. Mr. Pinheiro says there must be a strategy that ASEAN members and other countries can agree on to help Burma change.

"What is extremely necessary at the moment is a common strategy," he said. "One is coordination - but real coordination not a battle of statements. Sometimes I have used the megaphone diplomacy but I'm not very enthusiastic. We need to have a real coordination among partners. No country in the world can have the pretension to have the correct line to approach Myanmar."

At the ASEAN summit, Burma's generals are expected to reassure its fellow members that it is following a slow path to democracy.

Analysts say as a consequence, the final statement at this year's summit is likely to mention the need for reform in Burma, but nothing more.

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