Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Asean breaks bread with rebellious Myanmar

IT is hard to find anything redeeming about the Myanmar junta after decades of repression and misrule.

The generals of Naypyidaw, which the North Koreans helped build, only have those peers left in the world whose villainy is measured not just in prison camps but by their disdain for the mass suffering of innocents -- as was shown when cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta in May last year and killed far upwards of 100,000 people.

Yet the international climate is thawing for this regime. The United States is switching from a policy of isolation and opprobrium to one of direct engagement plus sanctions, and Europe looks likely to follow suit.

In the dilemma of its rogue member, Asean has honed a sophisticated realpolitik worthy of Kissinger.

Here is what Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the BBC at the start of the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference meeting on Nov 13 regarding Asean's soft approach:

"You can inflict personal indignities on a leader, but is that the way to change and influence a country's policies?
"They are in it for regime survival and for personal survival. Unless those concerns can somehow be managed in a transition forward, they are not going to be persuaded by sweet talk."

Lee and his fellow pragmatists have won the day, with their prize being President Barack Obama's presence at the first-ever US-Asean summit during the Apec weekend in Singapore after George W. Bush had declined to do so in 2007.

No American president had come so close to a Myanmar prime minister in more than 40 years.

Bush's painting of countries in black and white following the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had risked tarring the 10-member association with the same brush as applied to Myanmar. His secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had made a point of not turning up for two of the four annual Asean Regional Forums during her time in office.

Apart from wanting a diametrical change from the Bush era, the Obama administration also saw Chinese pieces advancing on the Southeast Asia chessboard and moved to reconnect with a region that had mostly been well disposed to Uncle Sam.

With or without the geopolitics, the US shift is welcomed by Myanmar's widespread and far-reaching dissident community.

"The new US policy of high-level engagement while maintaining sanctions is in line with our movement's position," said Khin Ohmar of the Network for Democracy and Development, based in Mae Sot on the Thai side of the border with Myanmar.

"But when it comes to implementation, that's where it's still too early to say."

Except for the civil-society bleeding hearts who treat Aung San Suu Kyi like a fetish object and the junta like anthrax, the Asean strategy of "constructive engagement" had always been accepted as the only way to go.

Local pressure groups like the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus do not dispute the usefulness of breaking bread with the military leaders but complain about how little has been gained. Western pro-Myanmar non-governmental organisations have found it easy to accuse Singapore, Thailand and others of "profiteering" -- seeking payback from dealing with the regime not in Myanmar's democratisation but in profit for their investors and businesses.

(The Thais can plead for extenuation. They shelter some four million Myanmar economic migrants and about 150,000 refugees.)

There is concern that the US game plan could provoke a rush to at least partial normalisation by countries that had previously kept Myanmar at arm's length.

"The problem is that some countries are interpreting this in their own way. It's meant to be a carrot-and-stick approach, but they are dropping the stick and offering only the carrot," Khin said in a telephone interview.

The carrot is being dangled because of a single, all-encompassing prospect: the junta has announced that elections will be held next year, which, if even half-way decent, could herald forgiveness for past sins.

Despite her scepticism, Khin saw it as the only hope. "It's just their own ploy to legitimise military power. If you look at the constitution, you will see how military power and privilege will be institutionalised.

"But for us, an election is something that has to happen in Burma. The last one in 1990 was never honoured."

For those who have tired of inflexibility against such a mulishly totalitarian state, a Parliament with a portion of seats reserved for the brass hats may be no bad thing. It has happened before in the rites of passage to democracy of nations like Thailand and Indonesia.

Khin said: "For the election to be credible and for it to resolve the crisis in the country, there are key benchmarks which must be met.

"That includes the release of Suu Kyi and political prisoners, stopping hostilities against ethnic minorities, creating the right atmosphere for every stakeholder to participate in the political process."

A test of the junta's pluralist stripes will be how it responds to Suu Kyi's plaintive request to Senior Gen Than Shwe to be allowed to meet her party colleagues in the National League for Democracy, and to act as go-between in talks to lift sanctions.

"No, we haven't heard anything yet," Khin said. "This can be an indicator of a genuine openness by the regime. They can start by accommodating that little thing. But right now, there is no response."

US officials have stressed the conditional aspects of their new stance. Whether or not the corner has been turned on Myanmar, its emigres have the patience of saints praying for lost causes.

Khin, then a protest organiser, fled the country during the crackdown following student demonstrations in 1988.

She does relief work for the sizable population of displaced Myanmar in the border areas.

Fearful of reprisal, she is rarely in touch with friends and family in Myanmar. Khin no longer misses home; she does not expect to return in the foreseeable future. By Kamul Idris for the New Straits Times.

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