ASEAN on Myanmar and the Charter: Strong statements and what else?

Updated On: Oct 19, 2007

After all the hoo-ha about persuading Myanmar to accept the human rights clause into the ASEAN Charter, the recalcitrant member state is again about to put a monkey wrench in the works again.  

The crisis in Myanmar is putting further uncertainty to the Charter process. 

When asked about the upcoming summit and what would happen to the ASEAN Charter, Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong replied that as of now, the Myanmar’s generals are expected to attend the summit. However, if they opted to keep away, it would not affect the Charter but “it would not make the signing ceremony at the November summit look good and also hamper the progress towards taking it to the next level”. 

But it is not only Myanmar that would cast a shadow on the Charter.  According to Secretary-General Ong, the new Thai Constitution contains a clause the disallows the Prime Minister or government from signing anything without approval from the country’s Parliament.  This means that Thailand may not be able to sign the ASEAN Charter if Thai lawmakers disapprove of the document.   However, he was also quick to add that “Thailand not signing the Charter “was a worst case scenario”. 

Thailand was quick to refute this “worst case scenario”.  The Thai Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Piriya Khempon announced that it “would propose the final draft of the ASEAN Charter for the consideration of the Cabinet next week before a submission to a reading with the NLA by the first week of November”. This will ensure that there is ample time for Thailand to participate in the summit and signing of the Charter.

Whatever it is, the ASEAN Charter is now ready to be signed, albeit with deep divisions among the ASEAN members. Due to high secrecy, it is uncertain what remains tabled after dilution of previous proposals. However, the Singapore member of the ASEAN Charter Task Force Ambassador Tommy Koh has assured that “the charter will include agreements to establish an ASEAN human rights body and to ensure ASEAN members comply with agreements signed among members”. He said that ASEAN’s present rate of carrying out its commitments was “dismal” at only 30%.

With such a poor record of keeping its word, it is no wonder ASEAN remains reluctant to act further on Myanmar.  Indeed over the last week, different and at time contradicting positions have surfaced on what ASEAN should be doing with the crisis in Myanmar

As UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari tours Asia to persuade states to stand united against the junta, he expressly chided ASEAN for its reticence. After meeting Malaysian PM Abdullah Badawi in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday (17 October), he announced that while the UN appreciated ASEAN’s 27 September condemnation of Myanmar, this was not enough.

Sources said that Gambari stressed that ASEAN must step up real action by cooperating with the UN, China and India. In addition, “ASEAN members must be persistent and monitor, and make sure that expected discussions between the Myanmar government and the opposition and other parties actually take place…not just statements from conference to conference”. After Thailand and Malaysia, Gambari will go on to visit IndonesiaIndiaChina and Japan before returning to Myanmar at the end of November.

It is quite obvious that ASEAN is not ready to put action to word. Just a day before meeting Badawi and issuing his strong exhortation, Gambari had met Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar who told him that while the UN can count on the full support of ASEAN, nobody should expect it to mete out sanctions. Syed Hamid told Gambari plainly, “If you want Myanmar to continue to be engaged, first we should not be talking about suspending. Nobody can talk when you are threatening with all sorts of things.”

This echoes Singapore’s stand voiced in the beginning of October. While Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong had written to Myanmar expressing “deep concern” on the violence the junta was wreaking, he also warned in a CNN interview that same week that sanctions would be “counterproductive”. In addition, Foreign Minister George Yeo had also declared to the media that “ASEAN must avoid pushingMyanmar into civil war because that would force China and India to get involved, creating instability in the region”. The best course of action for ASEAN would be to “keep Myanmar in the family and handle the problems with a certain degree of understanding and compassion [as] I believe we have a deeper understanding of the situation there, and the stand we take is the correct stand”.

ASEAN’s implicit but strong “solidarity” for Myanmar was again underlined by the outgoing Secretary-General of ASEAN Ong Keng Yong. Ong told AFP, “Whether you are in ASEAN or not, if you sit back and understand the constitution and make-up of Myanmar and you say you want to have a regime change, you are going to create another Iraq. I think regime change is a very fashionable buzzword in certain quarters but it is not realistic… the best outcome [would be] to thrash out a consensus between the military and the political opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi.”

While there are continued strong calls for sanctions, and the US and EU have acted to broaden the slew of sanctions slapped on Myanmar, Mr Gambari upon arriving in Indonesia has called on ASEAN and the international community to offer incentives to the Myanmar’s ruling junta in return for reforms.  Adding to the voice calling for engagement is Nyo Ohn Myint, a senior member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who called on ASEAN to try and bring the ruling junta to the negotiating table.  However, how much of an influence ASEAN has on Myanmar remained to be seen. (19 October 2007)


ASEAN’s role should be to get junta to negotiate (Straits Times, 19 October 2007)

Offer incentives to junta for reform (Straits Times, 19 October 2007)

No delay for ASEAN Charter – FM (Nation, 18 October 2007)

UN asks Asia for action, not words, on Myanmar (Reuters, 17 October 2007)

Southeast Asia Must Do More in Myanmar, UN Envoy Says (Bloomberg, 17 October 2007)

A hurdle for ASEAN Charter? (Today, 17 October 2007)ASEAN rights body unlikely to get tough on violators--execs (AP, 17 October 2007)

Japan suspends US$5-million grants to Burma (Nation, 17 October 2007)

UN envoy wants 'real action' from ASEAN on Myanmar (Straits Times, 17 October 2007)

ASEAN will never suspend Burma, says Malaysia (ABC Online, 16 October 2007)

Burma no-show, Thai Constitution could delay ASEAN Charter (Nation, 16 October 2007)

Myanmar regime change could 'create another Iraq'--ASEAN (AFP, 15 October 2007)

ASEAN charter ready, but clear divisions show through (Nation, 15 October 2007)

ASEAN must avoid pushing Myanmar into civil war: George Yeo (Channel News Asia, 7 October 2007)

ASEAN double talk (Inquirer, 5 October 2007)Sanctions against Myanmar will be counter-productive: PM Lee (Channel News Asia, 5 October 2007)

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