Burma, ASEAN and SAARC

Even though, culturally, Burma has more in common with the countries of Southeast Asia, it does not make sense for Rangoon to turn its back on South Asia.

Despite global condemnation of the au thoritarian regime in Rangoon, ASEAN has been maintaining a policy of "constructive engagement" with the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). This so-called constructive engagement is a policy spearheaded by Thailand with the ideological support of Lee Kwan Yew´s "Asian Way of Democracy". Its goal appears to be to promote democratisation in Burma through increased business contacts and connections with the international community. As a result, the ASEAN countries have emerged as major political and economic allies of the SLORC, with heavy investment and strong trade links.

Three decades ago, on 8 August 1967, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) came into existence, with the five founding members committed "to accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development" of their countries through regional cooperation. Recently, however, ASEAN has moved beyond its original focus. With the establishment in 1994 of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the association has moved to address political and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region as well.

The military generals of Burma, with the aim of gaining political legitimacy, are anxious to be part of ASEAN, and are not above offering ASEAN a share in Burma´s natural resources for the favour. The ASEAN leadership seems to be buying the idea. They allowed Burma to attend the recent ASEAN foreign ministers´ meeting in Bangkok as a "guest of the host country". On 10 May, Burma was actually admitted into the 19-country ASEAN Regional Forum at the ARF Senior Officials´ Meeting held in Indonesia. It is quite likely that Burma will be a fullfledged member of ASEAN by 2000.

To Join or Not to Join

ASEAN´s leaders justify their support of SLORC by maintaining that this acts as a counterweight to China´s growing military and economic influence in Burma. They fear China´s ability to destabilise all of Southeast Asia and are willing to go to great lengths to fend off this threat. There are also those in the ASEAN fold who believe that Burma can be groomed to join the Southeast Asian "tiger" pack once it is part of ASEAN.

Due to the self-interest which has guided ASEAN´s friendly attitude towards Rangoon, there are some questions to be raised, especially when we look forward to a future democratic Burma. Should Burma join ASEAN? Can Burma become a "tiger" merely by joining ASEAN?

In the prevailing global political and economic situation, nation states have found that regional cooperation and integration mechanisms are important for managing economic development and security. Multilateral cooperation is dwindling while regional cooperation and negotiations are growing in importance.

In this context, there seems no choice for Burma but to join the ASEAN regional organisation in order to play a part in collective political, economic and social solutions. Closer ties with other regional countries will also help Burma to balance China´s growing economic influence. As this influence and the number of illegal Chinese immigrants grow, anti-Chinese sentiment is increasing palpably within the country.

The Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stated clearly in an interview that "Burma must join ASEAN since Burma is a part of Southeast Asia". Since Burma shares many socio-cultural characteristics and patterns of behaviour with the peoples of Southeast Asia, this is seen as a natural move. With their Mongoloid features and related languages, the Burmese feel close to their Southeast Asian cousins.

For example, they do not feel as alien when they land in Bangkok or Singapore as they do while disembarking in Calcutta, even though Burmese society owes much to Indian cultural influences.

While the reasons to join ASEAN are clear, it is important to bear in mind that a majority of the ASEAN countries are under more or less authoritarian regimes, so-called ´democratic governments´ dominated by the military or autocratic cliques. "Political liberty must be restricted to gain economic development" is the central tenet of this brand of leadership, whose slogan is the "Asian Way of Democracy". ASEAN is becoming a political alliance which challenges the very concept of the universality of human rights. Hence, it would be quite a challenge for a future democratic Burma to work with these quasi-authoritarian governments.

One should also be clear that Burma is not likely to metamorphose overnight into a "tiger" just by joining ASEAN. The present political and economic system will not allow that. The country does not have the infrastructure to sustain economic growth and there are no signs of progress under the ruling military regime. "Some people have a mistaken view that Burma is a potential Singapore or Malaysia. It lacks an educational system to achieve that," says Ms Suu Kyi.

South Asia to the West

Because it seeks to achieve democracy even as it pursues economic cooperation with its eastern neighbours, Burma should not neglect South Asia on its western flank. A democratic Burma should work on reviving historical ties with the Subcontinent which have unfortunately been weakened over the years.

There is a large South Asian community in Burma, and the Subcontinent can be a dynamic trading partner with Rangoon. The fact that the socio-economic level of Burma´s development is more akin to those in South Asia means sharing ideas and resources is possible with Bangladesh and India, for example, with whom Burma shares borders.

India and Pakistan were two major importers of Burmese rice in the 1950s, when Burma was a parliamentary democracy. The Burmese people have not forgotten Jawaharlal Nehru´s goodwill, for example when he helped UNu, the then prime minister, to overcome Burma´s political and economic woes. When Rangoon was facing a political and economic crisis in 1954, with a huge rice surplus on its hands, India came to her troubled neighbour´s rescue by purchasing 900,000 tons on what U Nu called his "suggested terms".

Today, the South Asian countries are trying to convert the South Asia Preferential Trading Area (sapta) concept into a reality. Even as it looks to hitch its wagon to ASEAN, Burma must build a structure of economic cooperation that dovetails with the SAPTA effort as well.

The socio-economic challenges facing South Asian countries are similar to those that confront Burma. On the political front, most of the South Asian countries are trying to make Westminster-style democracy work. This is a problem that Burma has already faced once, and is likely to face again when it returns to parliamentary democracy.

All South Asians, like Burma, are trying to reach for the ideal of "healthy economic development". The term, as enunciated by Ms Suu Kyi, involves meeting successfully the challenges of peace and security; of human rights and related responsibilities; of democracy and rule of law; of social justice and reform; and of cultural renaissance and pluralism.

Both in the fight for freedom as well as in the challenges of healthy economic development, while being clear on the need to establish links with Southeast Asia, Burma needs to seek strength and support from South Asia.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian