Continued “brotherly feelings” despite Myanmar’s acute embarrassment of ASEAN?

Updated On: Nov 24, 2007

The trouble ASEAN has taken over Myanmar does not seem to be worth one bit.

If ASEAN was expecting some reciprocity for its engagement with Myanmar and keeping it within the family over the years, it has instead got a resounding slap in the face by the junta. The briefing on the situation in Myanmar that UN Special Envoy Gambari was supposed had to be called off last minute because of Myanmar’s objections.  Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong told the media that Thein Sein “made clear that the situation in Myanmar was a domestic Myanmar thing and that Myanmar was fully capable of handling the situation by itself”.

That all this happened at a time when ASEAN signs its first Charter resolving to be institution governed by the rule of law, and respecting human rights and democracy. 

More incredibly, the widely-heralded human rights body to be set up in the future is marked out to be toothless –with no powers of enforcement or accountability. A report marking out the parameters of the human rights body says “the rights body should oppose attempts by foreign countries to interfere in any Southeast Asian country's human rights problems and be faithful to ASEAN and its common interests and oppose external influence attempting to interfere in the human rights issues of any ASEAN member state”. Myanmar diplomat, Thaung Tun, said that his country wants the human rights body to be merely a “consultative mechanism” and that not “shame and blame” any ASEAN nation.

Now that the junta has effectively held ASEAN hostage to its whims by resolutely refusing to discuss the “internal situation”, what remains to be done? To be sure, there is a lot of hand-wringing and recrimination. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said, “I am very disappointed that… neither meeting ASEAN leaders nor the East Asia Summit leaders ASEAN plus six occurred. I think it would have been appropriate for the meetings to have taken place, and respectful of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. After all, nobody can accuse Professor Gambari or the Secretary-General of the United Nations of having some sort of partisan involvement in all of this. They represent very much the overwhelming views of the international community.” This comes just as the UN General Assembly committee approved a draft resolution this week strongly condemning the Myanmar government's crackdown on peaceful protesters and calling on the military junta to immediately release political prisoners.

The harshest words have come from the US and PhilippinesUS chief trade negotiator, Ambassador Susan Schwab, criticized the doubtful “reputation and credibility” of an ASEAN that dances to theMyanmar’s tune. She warned that “it just can't be ‘business as usual’ at ASEAN when a member is acting as Myanmar has done”, and made it clear that a US-ASEAN free trade deal “is impossible in the near term” because of the situation in Myanmar.

Breaking with protocol, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo denounced the junta as”forces of authoritarianism” and declared, “We will not rest, in representation of the political leadership and constituency of the Philippines and as a member of ASEAN, in the pursuit of justice and reconciliation in Myanmar.” She added that the Philippine lawmakers might not ratify the Charter in light of theMyanmar situation.

It is to Gambari’s credit that he remains persistent on procuring change in Myanmar. Despite the cancelled address, he went on to meet other leaders and foreign ministers of ThailandMalaysiaSingapore andNew Zealand. Gambari said, “The United Nations can ‘make a difference’ in Burma where others have failed – with the support of East Asian countries and the international community. The UN can succeed because we are doing what we do best ... dialogue and engagement. It will work. They (Burma) want to work with the UN.” In addition to the UN, AustraliaNew Zealand, the EU and US are also urgingMyanmar on reforms.

Burmese residing in Singapore were understandably disappointed with ASEAN’s velvet glove treatment of Myanmar.  A group of them demonstrated in the heart of Orchard Road near the venue of the summit meeting urging the ASEAN leaders to “listen to Burma’s desire” and not to “follow junta’s order”.  Earlier on, 3,626 Myanmarese nationals in Singapore, including members of the group Overseas Burmese Patriots, have signed a petition and handed it to Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, who will forward it to the UN through the Foreign Ministry.

Myanmar despite being under scrutiny during the summit has not blinked and has in fact struck back at attacks on its government. "The West has imposed economic sanctions, which directly harm the lives of ordinary citizens," a Japanese official quoted U Nyan Win as telling Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura. "I am not aware of a case in which sanctions resulted in the progress of democratization. Rather, economic development leads to democratization." “Not everything that the opposition, which stands up to the government, says is correct. Only when one realizes that there are mistakes among the opposition, can we come closer to each other." (22 November 2007)


Myanmar cloud could complicate FTA with ASEAN (National Business Review, 22 November 2007)

Gambari: UN can make a difference in Burma (Bangkok Post, 22 November 2007)

UN panel slams Burma crackdown (World News Australia22 November 2007)

Downer hits ASEAN silence over Burma (The Australian, 22 November 2007)

Arroyo calls Myanmar leaders ‘forces of authoritarianism’ (Inquirer, 21 November 2007)

UN envoy meets Arroyo, other leaders (Inquirer, 21 November 2007)

UN Committee Approves Myanmar Resolution (AP, 21 November 2007)

UN's Envoy Tells Myanmar to Speed Talks With Suu Kyi (Bloomberg, 21 November 2007)

ASEAN human rights body told to protect members from foreign interference (AP, 21 November 2007)

UN committee approves draft resolution strongly condemning Myanmar junta's crackdown (AP, 21 November 2007)

Sifting schizoid ASEAN's reality from rhetoric (Asia Times Online, 21 November 2007)

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