Editorial: Time to stop Asean’s humiliation

By Choo Zheng Xi

Every big family has its awkward characters: the cousin who can’t stop talking about Multi-Level Marketing. The 50 year old aunt who can’t stop talking about her sexual escapades. The mad uncle everyone wishes would just stay in his attic.

Asean has been trying to pretend there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Mad Uncle Burma for a very long time.

Paragraph 76 of the July 2007 Manila Communique reads:

“We recognized the fact that Myanmar has tried to address the many and complex challenges she is facing. We reaffirmed our commitment to remain constructively engaged with Myanmar as part of building “one caring and sharing” regional community together.”

Drivel like ‘caring and sharing’ might have worked, pre Burma crackdown. However, it is getting increasingly hard to hide behind such meaningless euphemisms. Actually, it is getting downright embarrassing.

The latest humiliation will be hard for Asean to live down: UN Special envoy Ibrahim Gambari was supposed to brief Asean heads of state and members of the East Asian Summit in Singapore today. His briefing was called off even as he was on the plane from New York.

Bad press foreshadows gloomy days ahead

One would be hard pressed to remember any Asean Summit that hasn’t been covered in the local press with full pages of smiling leaders and meaningless statements of good intent. You would expect the celebration of 40 years of Asean to be no different.

The fact that press coverage has been remarkably negative is an indicator of how bad things have become for Asean ever since Burma’s crackdown.

The front page of today’s Straits Times was shocking. The dour, unsmiling heads of Asean states were lined up behind a visibly upset PM Lee. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei fixed the cameraman with the evil eye, Indonesia’s SBY looked haggard and unhappy, and Malaysia’s PM Abdullah was looking askance at PM Lee, as if to say ‘gosh I’m happy I’m not in your position’. In short, all the heads of state obviously wished they were somewhere else, anywhere else but the Asean Summit.

More accurately, perhaps they wished they had been in a different time. A happier time, before Burma’s brutal crackdown on innocent monks and civilians, where the Asean heads of state could pretend without too much disingenuity that there was nothing wrong with having one of the most repulsive dictatorships in the grouping.

For better or worse, that time has passed.

Two schools of thought explained

To Singapore’s credit, it was laudable to try to put together a briefing by UN Special envoy Prof Ibrahim Gambari to a combined gathering of ASEAN leaders and their counterparts from China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The extremely public way the briefing plans fell apart was completely unprecedented, and highlights the confusion ASEAN finds itself in dealing with Burma.

This failure foregrounds two separate schools of thought in Asean: Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are three of the countries who felt that Mad Uncle Burma should remain in the attic, to be dealt with by the family. Singapore’s willingness to facilitate a meting between Prof Gambari and ASEAN is reflective of Singapore’s stand that ‘Gambari is the only game in town’ (George Yeo), and a clear attempt to broaden his bargaining power with the junta.

Before one rushes to decry the position of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia as a throwback to the bad old days of ASEAN insularity, one needs to reassess the reasons they are choosing to keep the Burma problem in the family.

Keep in mind Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are the Asean countries most receptive to democracy (all this is relative). They are among the countries that have set up national human rights commissions, bodies constituted by national law. Why would they be interested in stalling efforts to give Gambari credibility if they thought he would be effective?

The official reason is they did not want Gambari to brief states that were not part of ASEAN.

The unofficial answer might be that they probably suspect, as several observers have noted, that Gambari might not succeed. Their alternative might be to put stronger internal pressure on Burma.

Indeed, Burmese PM Thein Sein’s macabre statement foreshadows the way forward. He told the press: “Myanmar has every confidence in managing Prof Gambari’s mission and the good offices of the UN”. (Emphasis mine)

In previous visits to Burma, Prof Gambari has indeed been expertly “managed”. In a trip to Burma in early October, he was sent on helicopter rides to remote regions in the north of Burma to witness massive government orchestrated pro-junta rallies. He was left waiting for four days before being allowed to meet junta chief Than Shwe. (link)

Till now, Prof Gambari has not managed to set up a three party meeting between himself, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the leaders of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Could it be that Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have lost faith in the Gambari game?

If so, their recent rebuff of the Gambari briefing could have been read as a vote of no confidence in putting too much hope on one international interlocutor. These countries perhaps see themselves being able to play a stronger role in directly influencing the junta.

The Philippines has decided to use the Asean Charter as an opportunity to exert direct pressure on Burma: it has refused to ratify the Charter unless Burma restores democracy and frees Aung San Suu Kyi.

So while the Singapore school of thought would be to work through international frameworks, the second school of thought could be characterized as one focused on more direct internal pressure.

Unite or face irrelevance

Our characterization of the two schools of thought is probably an oversimplification of the different positions in the Asean states. It is probably too kind to describe Asean states as being in two states of mind. In all likelihood, they are in ten states of mind.

Both schools of thought are not mutually exclusive. What is clear is that a common position needs to be crafted, or Asean risks being made to look an ass.

ASEAN leaders will sign a charter that calls for a human rights body ‘relating to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms’ (article 14).

The Straits Times calls the Charter signing a ‘bright spark’. That is rubbish.

The Charter is a grotesque irony that highlights the impotence of Asean to do anything about Burma. Burma’s foreign Minister Nyan Win said “We will sign, sure”. It is obvious Burma thinks the Charter a perfectly meaningless document they are happy to pay lip service to and have no intention of implementing.

As long as no headway is made to pressure the junta into direct negotiations, article 14 will remain a cruel declaration to the world how little Asean can do about Burma.

But all is not lost.

The Philippine’s refusal to ratify the treaty in Congress until Aung San Suu Kyi is released is one option Asean member states can explore individually to pressure the junta to democratize. It strikes a good middle ground between accepting the Charter as an ideal, while refusing to ratify it as a reality until certain benchmarks are met.

Collectively, Asean needs to prepare for a common diplomatic strategy beyond Gambari. Asean cannot abrogate its diplomatic efforts to the UN, and rely on Gambari as a human shield. A manageable compromise going forward would be another statement in the vein of the now infamous ‘revulsion’ declaration putting greater pressure on the generals.

Asean also needs to be far firmer in asserting its role as a player in finding a Burmese solution. PM Lee’s statement that ‘Asean stands ready to play a role whenever Myanmar (Burma) wants it to do so’ does not cut it. Burma needs to be told in no uncertain terms that we are part of the solution. If we do not, Asean risks becoming part of the problem.

Asean summits usually end with a good natured song, dance or skit routine in which senior diplomats and heads of state gamely take part. Now that the song, dance and wayang of Asean has finally been subjected to a hard reality check, the heads of state are finding it difficult to get used to forging common platforms.

They need to learn quickly and act fast: as they talk, the people of Burma wait.

Read also: ASEAN leaders sign charter amid Myanmar row by Reuters


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