KONGThe violent crackdown by Burma's ruling generals on the opposition
leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, is
highly embarrassing for ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as
its members' foreign ministers prepare to meet their counterparts from United
States, Japan, China, the Koreas and the European Union at the ASEAN Regional
Forum in Phnom Penh from June 16 to June 18.
For far too long ASEAN has made out that
Burma's troubles are a minor domestic difficulty. The official ASEAN attitude
was summed up recently by the association's secretary-general, Ong Keng Yong of
Singapore, who said: "You cannot go in and tell your family member you cannot do
this, you cannot do that." If ASEAN is to be more than an expression of
geography and mutual admiration, it needs to show that it has some standards.
The common goals of ASEAN nations - such
as trade, enshrined in the ASEAN Free Trade Area, and cooperation on fighting
disease and drug trafficking - require confidence in one another's conduct and
institutions. Yet Burma rejects most behavioral norms common to Asian states,
whether they have liberal or authoritarian political systems.
The latest crackdown on Aung San Suu Kyi
makes a mockery of well-meaning attempts by ASEAN partners, notably Malaysia, to
encourage dialogue between Burma's military regime and Aung San Suu Kyi. It has
also been a slap in the face for the UN's envoy to Burma, the Malaysian diplomat
Razali Ismail, who was finally permitted to meet with the opposition leader on
Malaysia and Thailand should now take a
lead in putting together a policy which would effectively freeze Burma out of
ASEAN activities until it conducts its economic and political affairs in a
manner which makes interstate cooperation more viable.
Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of
Malaysia, who is soon to retire, could go out on a high note by using Malaysia's
position as chair of the Nonaligned Movement to demand better conduct from
Burma. In Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra should heed the rising
tide of criticism of his business-friendly approach to Rangoon.
If ASEAN sends a strong message to Burma,
Vietnam would object to any such "interference" in the internal affairs of a
member state and even democratic Indonesia would be uneasy. But ASEAN members
need to avoid the appearance that the group will put up with behavior such as
Burma's, ignoring their own democratic constituencies and leaving official
advocacy of open societies in Western hands.
The latest suppression of Burma's
opposition appears to have been linked to a surge of unrest caused by economic
problems. Much of the private banking system has collapsed, as government
directives that loans be repaid and that some accounts be frozen add to the
already chaotic condition of the economy.
The regime's promises to encourage a
market economy, much touted by ASEAN, have come to little. There was a surge of
foreign investment, led by Singapore, but that has largely dried up. Some
foreign investment was a means by which drug profits could be laundered for the
benefit of the generals and business executives from other ASEAN member nations.
This is not an economy with which the other members of ASEAN can or should
cooperate closely, let alone one such as Singapore, which has just concluded a
free trade agreement with the United States.
ASEAN pressure may not have much
practical effect. Burma's generals will continue to get plenty of support from
China, and India and Bangladesh have become more accommodating with Rangoon for
their own strategic reasons. But ASEAN needs to show that it can be proactive
and positive. Its image has already suffered this year when its current chair,
Cambodia, declared a verbal war on Thailand. The Singapore-U.S. free trade pact
is unpopular with other members of the ASEAN Free Trade Area. Regional
peacemaking efforts, such as those of the Malaysians in Mindanao and Thais and
Filipinos in Aceh, have all been bilateral efforts in which ASEAN has played no
At the very least the other members
should tell Burma, thought to be in line to take over the chair of ASEAN soon,
that it is not fit to do so. If it wishes to be a hermit state run by military
thugs, that may be its affair. But there is no reason for others to accord it
the dignity of presiding over an international group.