Saturday, April 23, 2011

Burma does not deserve any extra credit from ASEAN

The regional grouping should demand more serious reforms from the pariah state before handing over chairmanship of the organisation

Since its admission into Asean in 1997, Burma has been dragging the regional grouping down. For the past 14 years the Asean leaders have been very patient with the new member of the family; they have shown a great deal of faith in their controversial neighbour. For over a decade, they have waited in vain for real political change in the country. The junta has almost completed its seven-point political "reform" process and is waiting to become the Asean chair in 2014. At the end of last month the Burmese strongman General Than Shwe successfully set up a civilian government, but it was done via a rigged election. The new Burmese parliament is filled with military figures and junta cronies. Now Than Shwe wants a rubber stamp from Asean.

If anything, Asean wields the last stick against Burma. So far, Napyidaw - the new, secretive capital - thinks that the assumption of the chairmanship of Asean is an automatic process. In 2004, during the Asean summit in Laos, Burma asked to skip its chairmanship because of the domestic political crisis. But now, with a new government in place, Asean wants to see a more credible Burma that can deliver on both past and future promises.

So far, Napyidaw has not responded to Asean's earlier proposal, made in February, to send an Asean delegation to Burma to assess the situation. At the recent Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Bangkok, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan renewed the appeal for a fact-finding mission to be allowed inside the country before a decision is made on the chairmanship at the next summit in Jakarta on May 7-8.

It is possible that without a positive answer forthcoming from Burma, the Asean leaders will defer the decision to the end of the year. Indeed, they should not reach a conclusion in a hurry. Burma's chairmanship in 2014 would further complicate relations with the grouping's major dialogue partners, especially the United States, the European Union, Australia and Canada. These countries are very clear on where they stand regarding Burma. They want to see more, if not all, political prisoners freed, as well as the widening of political space and dialogue on national reconciliation. Sanctions will continue if there are no satisfactory outcomes.

In the case of the US, Washington has been very succinct in saying that if the current situation still prevails in Burma, US leaders will not attend a series of summits in the Asean calendar, especially the East Asia Summit and the Asean-US leaders' summit. Indeed, the latter's future is in doubt at the moment. If the US takes a lead on this, EU countries and Australia and New Zealand would probably follow suit. Therefore, Asean has to make sure there is solid and concrete progress in Burma.

The new Burmese government under President Thein Sein has to demonstrate to Asean and the world that it is a genuine civilian government and that the people's voices will be heard and taken into consideration. After all, this government claims it is a representative government under a parliamentary system. If that is the case, prove it. Otherwise, it will simply be regarded as Than Shwe's sham project. There is only a small window to comply with these requirements.

This time, Asean cannot prevaricate as it has always done before. Its reputation in the international community is increasing and the credibility stakes are now much higher. Asean is now a rules-based organisation with a charter comprised of agreed regulations. If Asean does not respect its own charter and its stipulations, it will spell the end of Asean in the not too distant future.

Burma has gotten away, literally, with murder for too long. Asean members must have the courage to stand up to this pariah state in their midst. Asean must avoid a situation that is summed up by a Thai proverb: One rotten fish contaminates the whole basket.
The Nation, Bangkok

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