Asean and Appeasement

No thanks to Singapore? By now Asean watchers would have come to the conclusion that Asean is all talk. With regards to Burma, all talk of appeasement. The regional body has had ample opportunities to censure Burma, the obvious blemish in the Asean weave towards a regional body to be taken seriously.

Singapore as chair of Asean until this month when Thailand took over, could have done much more to put Burma into the naughty corner. Instead, Singapore unfortunately at the cost to its image, Asean’s relevance and the ordinary Burmese, led an Asean policy of appeasement. Granted perhaps lots were done behind the scene such that Aung San Suu Kyi would finally be released in 6 months according to hints made by the junta. However, considering the Saffron Revolution and how the Burmese handled the Cyclone Nargis disaster, allowing the junta to merely hint that Burma’s famed dissident under house arrest would be released is just not enough.

Yes, the media especially the Western ones have always been keen to demonise the SPDC. Yes, Asean has always been about consensus and face-saving. Yes, Burma like it or not is part of Asean and only Asean should dictate how it will discipline its own members. Yes, isolating Burma might start a precedent of a divided not unified Asean. But no, alarm bells should be ringing when diplomacy merely takes the form of sustained rather than ad hoc circumstantial appeasement. With Burma, continued appeasement got Asean and Singapore nowhere.

Like Singapore with its many investments in Burma, Thailand, the immediate neighbour of Burma, is just as reluctant to antagonise SPDC. The ball is now in Thailand’s court. Whether Bangkok would play the game differently from Singapore as Asean Chair is open to guessing.

Asean on the Rocks
July 25, 2008

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is noted more for what it doesn’t do than for what it does do. Topping the list is its nonaction on Burma, which is a member of the 10-nation regional group. Two other members, Thailand and Cambodia, are currently facing off over a border dispute over an 11th-century temple while Asean stands by.

Nothing at this week’s meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Singapore indicates that the organization is making progress in addressing its members’ most important problems. The assembled ministers issued a mild rebuke of Burma on Monday, managing to mention detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a press release for the first time ever.

Some Southeast Asians are outraged by Asean’s kid-gloves treatment of Burma and are starting to push back. Their catalyst is opposition to the group’s new charter, which would make Asean a legal entity and create a human-rights body. It must be ratified by every member state.

In Indonesia, there are signs that Parliament might reject the charter. Some opposition politicians have made Burma their key issue, and many Indonesians feel a kinship with Burma’s embattled citizenry, remembering the repressive rule of the late President Suharto.

In the Philippines — another nation that’s been outspoken about Burma — President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is trying to figure out how to sell the charter to a skeptical Parliament. She said last year that the charter would likely be voted down unless Asean persuaded Burma to free Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for nearly a dozen years.

In Singapore this week, the foreign ministers glossed over all this, as usual, in favor of the group’s vaunted “consensus.” One of the crowning moments of the meeting was the announcement that Burma had ratified the new charter. A day later, the Burmese envoy was busy making sure that the new human-rights body created by the charter would be powerless to investigate the junta’s many abuses. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, he said, would stay in detention until at least next May.

Asean isn’t the only group that has failed to engage Burma effectively; the U.N. has hardly done better. But it’s telling that during the relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis last year, Burma’s generals preferred to work with Asean over the U.N. They know who their friends — or, rather, their enablers — are. Burma’s people are suffering. It’s to their detriment that Asean continues to play that role.


2 responses

  1. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 29 Jul 2008

  2. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 30

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