NEW YORK - The recent decision by Myanmar's government to sentence pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to a further 18 months' house arrest shows how difficult it is to deal with that country's ruling generals. Yet the first steps toward a new approach may already have been taken.
The clearest sign comes from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member. At first, most of ASEAN's member governments responded mildly to the verdict, expressing their "disappointment" - a stance that reflects the group's principle of noninterference in fellow members' internal politics.
But Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya then consulted his counterparts in Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. As current ASEAN chair, he floated the idea of concertedly requesting a pardon for Aung San Suu Kyi.
ASEAN government officials have since met to draft a text. Approval by the association's foreign ministers may come in September, with ASEAN leaders tackling the issue in October.
Of course, amendments and objections to the draft should be expected. But the pardon request is already significant. It seeks to be finely balanced, respecting the regime's sovereignty while subtly pressing home the point in unison, as neighboring states. The request would be politely worded, but it would also be an official and public mode of communication, instead of the usual behind-the-scenes quiet diplomacy.
What ASEAN says or does not say will not change things immediately. Cynics might add that even if Aung San Suu Kyi is pardoned, she may yet still be detained on political grounds or face other barriers aimed at preventing her from competing in the elections promised in Myanmar for 2010.
But Western sanctions have not worked, either. Since the 1990's crackdown, human rights violations have continued, most recently with the suppression of the protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. The average citizen has grown poorer, even as those close to the junta become ostentatiously rich.
Western sanctions instead paved the way for investments in Myanmar by those with less concern about human rights violations - first by ASEAN neighbors in hotels and other sectors, and more recently by China and India, which are vying for projects and influence in the strategic energy sector. As a result, Myanmar's generals have been able to play one side off against another.
The game, however, may now be changing. ASEAN's initiative is a new step forward for the group. While ASEAN rejected previous calls to impose sanctions, or even to expel Myanmar, this step shows that it will not remain inert regardless of what the generals do. Moreover, some ASEAN member countries, like Singapore, have explicitly called for Aung San Suu Kyi to be allowed to participate in the 2010 elections.
The ASEAN effort coincides with two other developments. One is the decision by the United States to reconsider its policy of sanctions, becoming more flexible while remaining true to its values and interests.
Some activists have criticized US Senator Jim Webb's journey to Yangon to obtain the release of John Yettaw, the American whose actions triggered the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi. But this is consistent with the Obama administration's policy of seeking a dialogue even with those who are not America's friends. Such dialogue is vital if Myanmar is to be prevented from possibly pursuing nuclear weapons and rigging elections, à la Iran.
The other development is less obvious. After the court delivered its verdict, the regime halved the sentence and agreed to keep Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, rather than moving her to one of its worst jails. This may not seem like much of a concession. But the junta seems to be trying to cause less offense.
Consider, too, the junta's gesture in handing over Yettaw to Senator Webb, and its interaction with the international community on humanitarian assistance after Cyclone Nargis. Might it be possible that the generals in Myanmar recognize that they are in a cul de sac? Could the regime be seeking ways out of its isolation in the run-up to the 2010 elections? Could it welcome dialogue and engagement?
How the generals respond to the ASEAN request will be an important signal of the regime's intentions. Even if the regime does want to begin talking, sustaining a dialogue will be no easier than has been the case with North Korea.
ASEAN, as the organization of neighboring states, is important to achieving that goal, but US involvement is key, as is inclusion of China and India. They must be pressed to see more than the opportunity for strategic access to energy and other natural resources. Japan, too - still the largest Asian economy and a traditional donor to the region - must also play a role.
A moral but pragmatic community needs to be constructed, with all in agreement on how to deal with Myanmar. Even if, like an orchestra, different countries use different instruments and play different notes, the main theme must be consistent.
If this can be done, the chances of progress in the run-up to the 2010 elections will be strengthened. Success may still prove elusive, but a new game with a greater possibility for success will have begun.
Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a fellow of the Asia Society.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.