Failure of ASEAN Engagement?

Updated On: Jan 20, 2006

When Myanmar was admitted to ASEAN, part of the reason was to engage Myanmar and to prod it along towards greater liberalisation (both economically and politically).

After almost 9 years, this goal still looks as distant as before.

Earlier, Myanmar declined to meet Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar who had been tasked by ASEAN leaders to find out the state of progress of democratisation in Myanmar. Syed Hamid Albar was originally scheduled to visit Myanmar in earlier this month
Despite the rebuff from Myanmar, ASEAN members have continued to stand up for Myanmar. On Monday (16th January 2006), Syed Hamid Albar told the US assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, "Of course, everybody who sees us will always express their concern about democracy in Myanmar, issues of human rights and so on…. But most importantly is that in Asean, we want to do it in a way that is acceptable to Myanmar."
ASEAN will have another chance in mid-February when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visits Myanmar as the last stop after visiting Brunei and Cambodia. It is still not known if he will be allowed to meet Aung Sung Suu Kyi. The Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Desra Percaya commented that, "The president is going to Burma to discuss bilateral issues. These types of issues cover a wide scope and they may well discuss human rights and democracy.”
Yudhoyono might not find pushing the military regime an easy affair. Part of the problem of the reasons for the ASEAN failure of “engagement” of Myanmar was due to the fact that Myanmar had other neighbours to turn to. Both India and China have been cultivating Myanmar.
For India, Myanmar has been seen as an important source of natural gas to meet India's energy hungry economy. It had invested in a gas field, Block A in the Bay of Bengal through its companies, ONGC Videsh Limited and Gas Authority of India Limited (together they have a 30% stake) together with South Korean companies Daewoo (60% stake) and Korea gas (10% stake). It had planned to build a 290 km pipeline from Myanmar's west coast through Bangladesh to transport the gas to India.
However, even the Indians are finding it difficult to get Myanmar on their side. In a snub to India, Myanmar dashed India's pipedream by selling gas from Block A in the Bay of Bengal to China instead. Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar had to cut short his trip to Yangon after the Myanmese told him that they had already tied up with PetroChina for the sale of gas (from Block A in the Bay of Bengal) to China.
Ultimately, it seems that Myanmar is tilting towards China. A border trade zone, the Muse 105 Mile Zone, linking the Chinese town of Ruili in the Chinese province of Yunnan and Myanmar's Muse is scheduled to be open before February. Based on figures from the Chinese customs department, Myanmar-China bilateral trade, including the border trade, reached US$1.082bn in the first 11 months of 2005, an increase of 10.1% per cent over the same period of 2004. If we were to look at the individual components, China's exports to Myanmar increased by 4.3% to reach US$827m. China's imports from Myanmar increased by 34.1% to reach US$255m.
It is perhaps, China, not ASEAN nor even India who ultimately lead the way in dealing with Myanmar. Despite 9 years of Myanmar's membership in ASEAN, it seems that ASEAN still has not been able to socialize the military regime into greater international respectability.
  • “All the people are to guard against ill attempts of some big nations and internal external destructive elements that are trying to cause disintegration of the Union. People in Chin State support National Convention.” (New Light of Myanmar, 18/1/2006)

  • President Delays Visit to Myanmar (Antara 16/1/2006)

  • Syed Hamid, Rice Discuss Iran Nuke Programme Controversy (Malaysia General News 16/1/2006)

  • China Deal Threatens Bangladesh- India-Burma gas project (Dhaka Daily, 15/1/2006)

  • Burma, China Trade Zone to Open this Month (Xinhua 16/1/2006)