By Gerald Giam

The extension of Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment on 27 May 2007 was a widely expected move by the country’s military government which has already kept her under detention for most of the 17 years since she won national elections by a landslide in 1990.

While Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia have voiced their dissatisfaction with the lack of democratic progress in Myanmar, there is still a lot more that the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can and should do to push the recalcitrant regime towards the path of democracy.

ASEAN needs to send a strong and unambiguous message of disapproval to Myanmar or risk becoming a laughing stock, irrelevant to the rest of the developed world.


Myanmar (also known as Burma) was admitted as a member of ASEAN in 1997 with the support of the grouping’s most influential members — Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. This was despite protests from Western governments and Aung San Suu Kyi herself that admitting Myanmar was tantamount to endorsing the junta’s despotic ways. However, ASEAN had its reasons for admitting Myanmar, despite the latter’s dismal human rights record.

Firstly, ASEAN governments saw the expansion of the grouping from six original members (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) to 10 members (with the addition of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) as a way to increase its attractiveness as an investment destination.

With over 500 million people and a combined gross domestic product of over US$685 billion, ASEAN-10 would like the world to believe that it is an attractive alternative to China and India.

Secondly, ASEAN felt it was imperative to engage Myanmar, to prevent it from drawing too close to China, which ASEAN countries have always been wary of. China views Myanmar as a country of strategic significance, providing it with much needed access to the Indian Ocean.

For Singapore, which pooh-poohs abstract notions of human rights and democracy in favour of hard-nosed economic pragmatism, Myanmar provides a sizeable export market, particularly for its military equipment and ordnance. (Singapore has long been a major supplier of arms to Myanmar.

Some analysts have speculated that the admission of Myanmar was the ASEAN leaders’ way of asserting the supposed superiority of “Asian values” and a rejection of Western governments’ attempts to impose “alien” values of liberal democracy on the region. At that time, Southeast Asian economies were brimming with confidence and optimism on the wings of phenomenal growth rates over the previous decade.

In an almost Titanic-like turn of events, however, all this came crumbling down just a few weeks after Myanmar was admitted to ASEAN. The sudden devaluation of the Thai baht led to a regional economic meltdown known as the Asian Financial Crisis.

To garner support Myanmar’s admission, ASEAN governments promoted the idea that “constructive engagement” of the regime rather than isolation and sanctions would be a more effective way of prodding the generals to behave according to internationally-accepted norms.

Ten years on, constructive engagement of Myanmar has proven to be an abject failure. The level of oppression of the opposition and people in Myanmar has increased, rather than abated, since its admission into ASEAN.

The Myanmar thorn

Since coming into the ASEAN fold, Myanmar has been nothing but a thorn in ASEAN’s relations with the European Union (EU) and the United States. Because of Myanmar‘s membership in ASEAN, the EU has downgraded numerous ASEAN-EU meetings which could have greatly enhanced ASEAN’s political and economic relations with the world’s most important trading block.

Myanmar has also proven to be a significant impediment to talks on an ASEAN-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA). It is virtually impossible for the EU to consider an FTA with ASEAN while maintaining sanctions against Myanmar for human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, a trade and investment pact with US was postponed numerous times because of Washington‘s reluctance to have anything to do with Myanmar‘s generals. Eventually in August 2006, the US did sign the Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA) with ASEAN. Unfortunately, the deal had been watered down from a more formal “agreement” to an “arrangement” because of Myanmar.

In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice broke with tradition and skipped the annual security meeting known as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This move was seen as a signal of Washington‘s displeasure over the lack of democratic progress in Myanmar, which was scheduled to take over the rotating leadership of ASEAN the next year.

Perhaps the biggest threat that Myanmar poses to ASEAN is the derailment of the grouping’s bold plans to achieve regional economic integration by 2015. With its moribund economy and lack of progress on almost all aspects of development, Myanmar is likely to be a roadblock to regional economic integration, which requires a minimum degree of parity in economic development between member states in order to be successful.

Wake up call for ASEAN

Condoleezza Rice’s snub of the 2005 ARF was a wake up call for ASEAN governments, as it dawned on them how much of a liability Myanmar was turning out to be. The leadership of ASEAN is rotated annually among its 10 members. The most important responsibility of the ASEAN chair is to host all the major ASEAN meetings, including the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, the ASEAN Summit, the ARF and the East Asian Summit (which involves Australia, New Zealand and India).

Of these meetings, the ARF is probably the most significant as it involves ASEAN’s “Dialogue Partners”, including the US, the EU, China and Russia. It was a no brainer that any meetings held in Yangon (Myanmar‘s capital) would be skipped by the US, the EU and probably Australia and New Zealand.

To stave off this looming crisis, ASEAN foreign ministers in 2005 took an unprecedented move to strongly hint to Myanmar that it voluntarily forego its turn as ASEAN chairman. This was probably the furthest ASEAN has got to breaking its tradition of “non-interference” in the domestic affairs of member states. Fortunately, Myanmar got the hint and did give up its chairmanship, although the option still remains open for it to reclaim its turn at a future rotation.

By this time, ASEAN leaders were starting to openly voice their frustration at the continued recalcitrance of the Myanmar junta, and their unpredictable behaviour. One of the straws that broke the camel’s back was the junta’s sudden decision to move its capital from Yangon to the remote mountain town of Naypyidaw in November 2005. From then on, ASEAN governments decided that they would no longer spring to Myanmar‘s defence at international fora like the United Nations, and would leave them to defend themselves from Western criticism.

Put them “in the dog house”

Last Friday during the Shangri La Dialogue, an annual security forum in held in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the audience that ASEAN is virtually powerless to bring democracy to Myanmar.

He said, “We (ASEAN) have exercised our influence, persuaded, encouraged, cajoled the authorities in Myanmar to move and adapt to the world which is leaving them behind. The impact has been limited.”

He admitted that “Myanmar is a problem. It’s a problem for ASEAN, it’s a problem for Myanmar itself”. He continued, “We can take a strident position and say well, we will condemn you, we will shut you off, we will embargo you, we will put you in a dog house. Will we make things better? Will we cause things to change? I don’t believe so.”

These unusually bitter words coming from a Singapore leader were carried by Reuters and Associated Press, but were conspicuously absent from Singapore‘s newspapers, including The Straits Times.

It is true that ASEAN’s influence over Myanmar is limited. Even without ASEAN’s support, Myanmar can still count on the support of its two giant neighbours, China and India, who are competing with each other to give more money, aid and weapons to the regime in order to exercise more influence over that strategically located nation.

It was a colossal mistake for ASEAN to have admitted Myanmar into the fold in the first place. Although that is now water under the bridge, ASEAN’s continued reluctance to take concrete action against Myanmar has only served to embolden the Myanmar generals’ sense of invincibility and reinforce the commonly held view that ASEAN is a “toothless tiger”.

Myanmar rightly belongs in the dog house. Some parliamentarians from ASEAN countries have called on ASEAN to suspend their membership. However, none of the ASEAN countries appear ready to support this very harsh measure.

They would reason that if Myanmar can be suspended because of foreign pressure, then the same might happen to their own countries in the future.

The best scenario for ASEAN would be for Myanmar to voluntarily withdraw from the grouping. This might be a remote possibility if Myanmar realises that it cannot gain anything more from remaining in the grouping because its fellow member states no longer defend them in the face of criticism from other countries.

Should Myanmar remain obstinate, and move even further away from its “roadmap to democracy”, ASEAN should take a bold step to bite the bullet and suspend them, lest Myanmar becomes a millstone around ASEAN’s neck which eventually drowns the grouping.

At a minimum, ASEAN governments should break their traditional silence and speak as one voice against the behaviour of the Myanmar regime.

At the same time, the role of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) should be enhanced and their statements given more press coverage. The AIPMC consists of lawmakers from Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and an MP-elect from Myanmar.

Singapore‘s representative is Mr Charles Chong, PAP MP for Pasir Ris-Ponggol GRC. The AIPMC has repeatedly called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and for ASEAN’s ties with Myanmar to be suspended should they fail to do so.

Finally, ASEAN governments will see no compelling reason to act against Myanmar unless their electorates take a keener interest in the issue and pressure their governments to stop turning a blind eye to the plight of the Myanmarese people.

Malaysian opposition leader Lim Kit Siang probably expressed it best, when he remarked that “the lesson from the failure to block (the Myanmar regime’s) admission into ASEAN is that ASEAN cannot be expected to be forced to promote democratization in Burma until democratization itself has taken deep and firm root in the majority of ASEAN nation.”

About the author:

Gerald works in the IT industry and is a freelance political analyst. He blogs at Singaporepatriot. These are his personal views.
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Press release by the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC)

Suu Kyi’s detention – four years on, end it now!

15th May 2007

The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) is deeply concerned that pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will not be released from house arrest when her current term under house arrest comes up for review on May 27, this year. The military government has consistently extended her house arrest period annually since she was detained in May 2003 and AIPMC fears that the Myanmar military regime would act no differently this time around.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Suu Kyi has spent the past four years of her life under house arrest. She has been detained, without trial, for a total of close to 11 of the past 17 years. AIPMC finds these figure abhorring and is appalled by the fact that Burma’s chosen leader is prevented from exercising her basic human rights.

The military junta must no longer act arbitrarily and inhumanely towards its people but rather act in accordance with international standards of human rights as espoused to by ASEAN countries and the international community.

AIPMC calls on all governments in ASEAN and around the world to strongly and wilfully be vocal in ensuring Daw Suu Kyi’s detention is not extended. She has done no crime; instead she had taken a peaceful approach to seek democratic reforms in her homeland.

In relation to this, AIPMC firmly supports the initiative by former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik who has secured the endorsement of 50 former Presidents and Prime Ministers around the world in a petition campaign calling for Daw Suu Kyi’s immediate and unconditional release. AIPMC lauds their commitment to the Burma cause and encourages Myanmar’s regime to heed the wisdom of these former world leaders.

AIPMC further repeats its calls to the United Nations and its Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to encourage and support a UN Security Council resolution on Burma that would enable humanitarian and political intervention in Burma’s crisis.

The people of Burma have repeatedly called on the free world to help them. We cannot, in good conscience, turn a deaf ear to their plea.

AIPMC is an organisation comprising current and former Members of Parliament from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Further reading:

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)

Human Rights Watch on Burma

The Free Burma Coalition

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