The Burmese government's detention of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi has sparked a new wave of condemnation. But there is a significant difference between this latest government crackdown and earlier ones. Pressure is now coming from neighboring countries not usually critical of Burma's ruling generals. The military government's treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi has become something of embarrassment for Burma's neighbors.
For years there has been an unspoken but well-understood commandment among member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to never speak ill in public of a fellow ASEAN member. This precept, widely known as "The ASEAN Way", was breached only once before. In 1997, Cambodia's application for admission to ASEAN was put on hold due to the coup by Prime Minister Hun Sen against his rival and co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Until now, the sharpest international criticism of Burma has come from Western governments, most notably the United States and Britain.
But, at the recent meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Phnom Penh, ASEAN reprimanded Burma, also known as Myanmar, for its most recent detention of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ronald May, a professor of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University, says Burma is becoming an embarrassment to ASEAN. "There must be a feeling within ASEAN that the sort of things that are happening in Burma don't do the standing of ASEAN much good internationally. And I think that there probably is a feeling among some of the countries of ASEAN that there is a need to pull Burma into line a bit if it's going to remain a member of ASEAN," he says.
Noel Morada, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines and an expert on ASEAN, says the regional grouping also spoke up to head off criticism from Western nations of ASEAN on the Burma issue. "What I know, and what I gathered from some friends in ASEAN is that they wanted to preempt Western criticism. And so, you know, that was, I think, part of the reason why they had to be vocal at this time," he says.
Burma was admitted to ASEAN in 1997, the same year Cambodia's membership was delayed. Some member states privately expressed misgivings about letting Burma in. Aung San Suu Kyi, repeatedly held in detention, had already acquired near mythic status approaching that of a fellow Nobel laureate and one-time political prisoner, Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
Mr. May says ASEAN hoped admission to its ranks would have a positive influence on Burma's ruling generals. "I think that there was probably some expectation at the time that the older ASEAN members might be able to exercise some liberalizing influence on countries like Burma," he says.
The United States and other Western nations are prepared to impose new economic sanctions on Burma, and Japan, Burma's biggest aid donor, has announced a suspension of any new assistance until Aung San Suu Kyi is released.
But analysts say it is not likely that ASEAN will take similar hard action. Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, says that engagement with Burma rather than confrontation remains Thailand's policy. "Well, we believe that right now that countries are making their concerns known. Let's see how the Myanmar government reacts to the concern expressed. And we don't think that it's time to impose sanctions. And we think that having dialogue is probably the best way," he says.
ASEAN member governments are a mixed bunch, ranging across a spectrum of democratic to authoritarian and analysts believe that some governments are afraid of taking any strong action against Burma, lest their own legitimacy be challenged.