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Burma and ASEAN's seat of yearning

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COMMENTS

14 September 2011 11:26

Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.

As The Interpreter noted last week, there has been a spate of articles in recent months looking at the apparently more open-minded and conciliatory approach being taken by Burma's President Thein Sein. Inevitably, given the opaqueness of Burmese politics and the highly polarised nature of the Burma-watching community, opinion on this development is divided, sometimes bitterly so.

A number of respected commentators have taken a strategic view and, with the usual caveats, sought to highlight what may prove to be the first signs of a gradual process of political reconciliation and incremental reform. A hard core of activists and their supporters, however, have dismissed the latest developments as part of a massive confidence trick by an entrenched military regime. Focusing on more immediate issues, some have even called for harsher sanctions against Naypyidaw.

It is always difficult to discern what is in the minds of Burma's leaders, but few of their decisions lend themselves to simple explanations. Most seem to reflect consideration of a range of complex issues. One possible reason for the more nuanced policies emanating from Naypyidaw that has not received much attention to date is that Burma is seeking to satisfy certain expectations expressed by ASEAN, in order to assume the chairmanship of the Association in 2014. 

In 2005, when Burma gave up its turn to assume the chair, citing the 'ongoing national reconciliation and democratisation process', it was on the understanding that it could reclaim the position when it was ready to do so. Naypyidaw has now made its wish for the position abundantly clear, and would lose considerable face if its bid was unsuccessful. As the current ASEAN chair, Indonesia plans to send a review team to Burma shortly and will make a recommendation on the matter at this November's summit meeting in Bali.

Despite strong reservations on the part of a few member states, and opposition from the US and EU, there is a reasonable chance that Burma will get its wish. It will ultimately be a political decision, not an objective one, but arguably the measures being taken by Thein Sein help Burma demonstrate its commitment to the ASEAN charter. Remarkably, given the organisation's rather mixed membership, this requires states to adhere to 'the principles of democracy and constitutional government', and to promote and protect human rights.

As Singapore-based Burma scholar Tin Maung Maung Than has noted, there are no formal benchmarks to measure these commitments. However, if the Association was keen to find signs of Burmese compliance it could cite the 2008 constitution, the 2010 elections and the hybrid civilian-military government which was inaugurated in January. All three are gravely flawed, but Burma's new 'disciplined democracy' has been described positively by some ASEAN members, and accepted by others as at least a step in the right direction.

Two other issues that are bound to be considered by ASEAN members are Naypyidaw's treatment of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the plight of the 2200 political prisoners currently believed to be held in Burmese prisons. Here too, if ASEAN was looking for reasons to justify Burma's elevation to the chairmanship, its members may be able to claim that there has been some progress.

Not only has Aung San Suu Kyi been released from house arrest, but she has even been invited to Naypyidaw for discussions with Thein Sein about political reconciliation and other matters. She has expressed herself 'happy and satisfied' with the discussions to date, going so far as to describe them as 'a positive beginning'. More importantly for ASEAN's purposes, she has reportedly stated that 'the president wants to achieve real positive change'. Among other things, this suggests that a release of political prisoners is imminent.

The Burmese government has already declared one amnesty this year, releasing around 14,000 from the country's jails, but few were counted as political prisoners. It is now rumoured that the release of around 500 in this category will be announced soon. Nothing short of an amnesty for all 2200 will satisfy Naypyidaw's strongest critics, but a tranche of 500 may be large enough for ASEAN members to claim that, in this respect too, the regime's record is improving and it is making an effort to meet the criteria for the chairmanship.

Even so, until ASEAN makes its final decision, nothing can be taken for granted. Another mass protest in Burma, for example, prompting yet another military crackdown, would be hard for the Association to ignore. An escalation of the current counter-insurgency campaigns against armed ethnic groups and a renewed flood of refugees across Burma’s borders would also be major obstacles. And there is still Naypyidaw's problematic relationship with Pyongyang, with its associated claims of ballistic missile and nuclear weapons cooperation.

ASEAN seems unpersuaded by these claims. Yet, if it could be shown that Burma was violating UN Security Council resolutions against defence links with North Korea, then Naypyidaw's chances of international rehabilitation would plummet. And if hard evidence could be produced of an active WMD program, Burma's relations with ASEAN would be seriously jeopardised. As Washington's new Burma Envoy recently said of such a development, with regard to relations with the US, it would be a 'game-changer'.

Any questions of UNSC violations aside, ASEAN might be able to wear Burmese acquisition of short-range ballistic missiles (which have long been held by Vietnam, for example). However, the Association simply could not ignore firm evidence that one of its members had blatantly ignored the 1995 Bangkok Treaty, which declared Southeast Asia a nuclear weapon free zone. Already, one ASEAN Secretary General has stated that discovery of a secret nuclear weapons program would mean Burma’s expulsion from the organisation.

Photo by Flickr user mangostani.

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