Search Friday July 2, 2004

EU lectures on human rights ring hollow
The Asia-Europe summit
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Saturday, June 26, 2004

HONG KONG: Arrogance and hypocrisy remain two repetitive themes of Europe's approach to East Asia. In the balance at the moment is the future of the Asia-Europe summit due to be held in Hanoi in October over the participation of Myanmar, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. The meeting is supposed to group the EU 15 with the ASEAN 10 plus China, Japan and South Korea.

If Europe bans Myanmar from a Euro-Asia Finance Ministers meeting due to be held in Brussels next month, ASEAN will exclude the new EU members from the summit, which will thus collapse.

There are plenty of reasons to regard the Yangon regime with the utmost distaste. It was always unwise of ASEAN to admit the country until it demonstrated a modicum of effort to move towards a political and economic structure more in line with the rest of the group. ASEAN efforts to influence Myanmar's rulers have been largely ignored and the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest.

EU members are entitled to boycott Myanmar if they wish, but neighbors in the region have to deal with realities on the ground. EU efforts to determine ASEAN members' own policies are quite extraordinarily arrogant.

More than that, they focus largely on the person of Aung San Suu Kyi rather than on the many other evils of the regime - drug dealing, corruption, oppression of minorities, economic failures. She may be a Nobel Price winning heroine. But former Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang of China has been under house arrest for a lot longer - 15 years - without a squeak from the Europeans although he arguably did more for liberalization than Aung San Suu Kyi could ever do.

Indeed, Europe has tried harder than almost anyone to ingratiate itself with his jailers, the perpetrators of Tiananmen.

As for Vietnam, its political structure is as closed as that of Myanmar, and Singapore runs close to Hanoi when it comes to suppression, through one means or another, of political dissent and challenges to the ruling party. Malaysia's former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, is also widely seen as a political prisoner.

Europe has an uncanny ability to try to create cause célèbres in countries which mean little to it but allow former colonial governments to exercise "saviour" instincts on behalf of oppressed Asians and Africans. But once political or commercial advantages loom large the liberal instincts are too often quickly forgotten.

That has long been the case with Singapore, whose utility has triumphed over liberal pronouncements by European governments and driven most western media to unparalleled levels of self-censorship.

Just this week, the Singapore-based Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), partly funded and staffed by the EU, was accused by the International Federation of Liberal Youth, a grouping of youth representatives from liberal and democratic political parties, of withdrawing at the last minute support for a meeting in Kuala Lumpur because of participation by Young Democrats of Singapore, an opposition group.

A long self-justificatory denial by the ASEF public affairs director, Albrecht Rothacher, ended by hoping that the allegation "was not calculated to create difficulties between ASEF and the government of Singapore, our host country" - a remark which only served to contrast the difference between Europe's view of political oppression in Singapore and in Myanmar.

It was the case with Indonesia under Suharto and is very much the case with China today. National self-interest is triumphing over proclaimed ideals. That is hardly surprising but it is more hypocritical than the equally self-interested attitudes of China towards Myanmar.

As for ASEAN, the more lecturing it faces from faraway Europeans on how to deal with Yangon, the less pressure it is likely to apply. Let ASEAN, like the EU, learn its own mistakes.