Myanmar is now UN’s problem, not ASEAN’s problem

Updated On: Jun 23, 2006

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid has signalled that ASEAN is ready to let the United Nations take responsibility for encouraging the regime towards democracy.

Syed Hamid was quoted that, “There is lack of confidence in Myanmar on ASEAN…. I think the best thing is for Myanmar to be put under the purview of the UN Secretary-General . Myanmar does not want ASEAN to play a role. They see ASEAN as not being fit to play a role.” Syed Hamid was denied access to Aung San Suu Kyi in his earlier visit to Yangon as the official ASEAN representative. Syed Hamid also lamented that no ASEAN leader or foreign minister had been invited to Myanmar’s new capital. Instead, a UN official was invited.

Many of the international newswire and some of the regional newspapers saw his comments as reflecting the view that ASEAN as an organisation is becoming tired of Myanmar’s lack of cooperation..

Ironically, just as there are indications that ASEAN is showing its impatience with Myanmar, there have been a series of news reports urging greater dialogue and engagement with Myanmar.

The founder of Free Burma Coalition, Maung Zarni who is also a visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University has urged for the international community to move away from “the moral imperatives of their good-versus-evil narrative.” Maung proposed several tips for a more informed policy towards Burma, including:-

  • a greater appreciation of the corrosive power of selective trade and commercial engagement, cultural and intellectual interactions on Burmese societal and governmental institutions
  • the junta’s valid concerns over the possibility of Balkanisation of Burma
  • appreciating the historical role of the military as Burma’s most dominant stable institution

The UN official, Ibrahim Gambari, who visited Myanmar last month has also urged for more diplomacy on Myanmar. This came after his trip to Myanmar last month. He said, “The UN received through diplomatic channels continued indications of the government’s willingness to engage with the United Nations on the whole range of issues raised during my visit.” Ibrahim’s visit is seen as a success given the permission granted for him to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. He also revealed that Aung San Suu Kyi had agreed that the United Nations “might now be able to play a useful role as an impartial third party in helping them find common ground with the government on what would no doubt be a difficult road to national reconciliation.”

Earlier this month, the Myanmar government has also released a political prisoner as urged by the UN labour agency, International Labour Organisation (ILO). This seems to also signal a more reconciliatory stance by Myanmar. The Myanmar Ambassador has assured the ILO that the Myanmar government would put a six-month moratorium on prosecutions of complainants on an experimental basis. Until a more credible mechanism was established, the Myanmar government would also handle complaints of forced labour jointly with the Director-General of Myanmar’s Labour Department and the ILO Liaison Officer.

With ASEAN expressing its frustration and the United Nations looking increasingly interested to be drawn into the Myanmar issue, India is quietly continuing to improve its bilateral ties with Myanmar. On Tuesday, the Indian Foreign Service issued a press release, announcing the completion of the seventh round of Foreign Office Consultations between India and Myanmar. These Consultations are aimed at finding areas of cooperation particularly in trade and energy.

The Export and Import Bank of India has also announced that it is likely to extend a US$20 million loan to Myanmar for modernisation of a refinery project in a few weeks’ time. These diplomatic charm offensive by India towards Myanmar are likely to be part of India’s desire to obtain natural gas from Myanmar’s Block A-1 gas fields. (Myanmar is set to announce whether it will export natural gas to India or China from this Block by the end of June).

All in all, the military junta seems to be shifting its focus from ASEAN towards its other neighbours, India and China for diplomatic support on its domestic political issues. Myanmar’s seemingly lack of cooperation with ASEAN in political matters contrasts with its seemingly newfound desire to work with the UN. It remains to be seen the extent to which the UN will succeed where ASEAN has not. In the meantime, economic cooperation will continue between India (and China) and Myanmar.


ASEAN Set to Wash Its Hands of Burma (The Australian, 22 June 2006)

Top UN Official Urges Diplomacy To Push Reforms in Myanmar (Agence France Presse, 22 June 2006)

Dialogue, Not Isolation, the Key to Reform in Burma (The Independent [UK], 16 June 2006; republished in Canberra Times, 21 June 2006)

7th Round of Foreign Office Consultations Between India, Myanmar Held in Yangon Held on June 18 (Hindustan, 20 June 2006)

Junta Stays One Step Ahead of Demonstrator (The Nation [Thailand], 20 June 2006)

Myanmar to Get US$20 MLN Loan from India Exim Bank (Asia Pulse, 20 June 2006)

Myanmar to Decide on Gas Exports to India by Month End (Asia Pulse, 20 June 2006) 

ILO Asks Myanmar to Take Steps to End Forced Labour (The Press Trust of India, 20 June 2006)

Myanmar Frees Labour Activist (Japan Economic Newswire, 6 June 2006)