ASEAN’s Burma tangle

Uneasy bedfellows they obviously are, but what are the dynamics of the ASEAN – Burma relationship?

When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was being established in 1967, Burma was approached to be a founding member. Rangoon declined, citing the principle of strict neutrality as a barrier to joining an organisation perceived to be an imperialist tool. That attitude persisted for two decades. But the emphatic international condemnation of the bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy movement of 1988 changed the mindset. The military junta, named the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997 before which it was known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), realised that in order to survive it must end its self-imposed isolation and find regional friends.

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 also altered the political landscape of Southeast Asia. In the region's hotspot, Cambodia, a 14-year-old conflict was brought to an end two years later, enabling former foes such as Vietnam and the rest of the Indochinese states, including Cambodia and Laos, to reconcile their present and forget their past. Their admission to ASEAN in the late 1990s was a watershed event in regional politics, marking the closure of the ideological spit forced by the Cold War. Burma's return to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1992, after it had departed in 1979, was indicative of its desire to rejoin the international community.

Almost three decades after the initial tentative contact, both Burma and ASEAN found themselves in need of each other for different reasons. Following the crackdown on the democratic movement, the Burmese regime wanted to shore up support within the region amid growing pressure from the West as well as international organisations. On the one hand, ASEAN's cardinal principle of non-intervention in the domestic politics of member countries suited Burma's diplomatic offensive very well. On the other hand, ASEAN's interest in admitting Burma was prompted primarily by its serious concern with China's expansion southward towards the Indian Ocean. Reports of a Chinese naval presence in Burma prompted senior ASEAN officials to conclude in a 1995 Bangkok meeting that the only way to counter Beijing's growing influence was to embrace Rangoon regardless of its brutal regime and underdeveloped economy.

This choice was influenced by ASEAN's view that Burma constitutes a strategic junction in Asia, linking China and India, the world's most populous countries. Therefore the inclusion of Burma was a better option than leaving it alone in the woods, open to the courting of the two Asian superpowers. Meanwhile, realising the geostrategic predicament of its immediate neighbours, the Rangoon regime has been playing one against the other. For years, Rangoon manipulated its China card effectively against India and ASEAN, playing on the fear of the enlargement of the Chinese sphere of influence. India, once a fervent supporter of the exiled Burmese pro-democracy movement, switched its policy in the first half of the 1990s and began to appease the Rangoon regime in an attempt to neutralise China's increased presence. Now, New Delhi too has acquired a toehold in Rangoon.

Unfortunately for ASEAN, Burma's entry into the organisation disrupted its traditionally strong ties with the West, which has been providing substantial aid and technical assistance to member countries. ASEAN's regional interests notwithstanding, Western countries continue to be critical of Burma. They have been criticising the Burmese junta's treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, and remain well aware of the harsh political oppression in the country. ASEAN, pushed to the defensive, has argued that it can handle the Burmese situation better than countries outside the region, through the so-called ASEAN way of consensus building and noninterference. The organisation's hope clearly was that through peer pressure and discreet diplomacy, Burma would give in and cooperate with it on the more sensitive issues.

But, for ASEAN it has been a wait in vain. Burma has not cooperated. Even so, the organisation's optimism has not waned. Five years have elapsed since Burma's inclusion but the organisation's thinking has failed to evolve despite Rangoon's calculated insult of refusing, in 2000, to welcome an ASEAN fact-finding mission, known as the ASEAN Troika. Instead, the Burmese regime went out of its way to welcome a similar team from the European Union a year later. And whatever change has happened in Burma has not really been at the behest of ASEAN. The process of political dialogue between the regime and the opposition made progress in October 2000 through the facilitation of the United Nations Special Envoy for Burma, Tan Sri Ismail Razali. Much credit has been given to his efforts for the release of Suu Kyi from house arrest. ASEAN's case for a special role for itself in the unfolding Burmese political process is therefore not very credible.

Meanwhile, Rangoon is back to playing the game it is now adept at. The junta leaders know full well that in order to revive their ailing economy and ward off growing pressure for political reform, they have to tussle with international opinion and the opposition. They have so far made the most from the minor concessions to the civilian political process. After Suu Kyi's release last May, the regime managed to secure some financial gains. Japan, which is Burma's biggest aid donor, has pledged more humanitarian aid as an incentive for the regime to loosen up. Lobbyists hired by Rangoon are active these days in the US Congress, working to stop possible legislation that seeks to impose an American trade embargo.

It is clear that Burma will continue to drive wedges within the international community. As an ASEAN member, Rangoon now has the cover of regional respectability. The regime also now has an international forum and to that extent is no longer an international pariah. Political dialogue, brokered by Razali, is bound to proceed only very slowly as the regime consolidates its grip on the polity and attempts to undermine the popularity of the opposition. Without concerted effort from the larger international community and more sustained and sterner measures from ASEAN, the junta will overcome international and domestic challenges, succeed in reigning in civil political forces and continue its repression at home.

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Himal Southasian