An Asean split over Myanmar?

Updated On: Mar 29, 2005

Bangkok–A split appears to be developing among Asean members over moves to blockMyanmarfrom the rotating chairmanship of the 10-nation grouping next year.

Lawmakers fromMalaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional – with the tacit support of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi -are planning to putMyanmaron notice to implement democratic reforms and release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“It is understood thatIndonesia, thePhilippinesandSingaporemay support the [Malaysian] move,'' RadioAustralia'sSoutheast Asiacorrespondent Peter Lloyd said.

However,Thailandhas said that it will not be part of the Malaysia-led campaign to stopMyanmarfrom taking over the Asean chair.

The country’s newly-installed Foreign Minister, Mr Kantathi Suphamongkhon, saidThailand isfirmly againstMyanmarlosing its chance to lead Asean.

Thailandwill not get involved inMalaysia’s campaign. We have to be very careful, we cannot jump to conclusions,” he said.

Mr Kantathi said he expectsYangonto be aware of the region's wishes for democratisation in the country, and that taking steps to convince fellow members of progress is important.

Burmamust heed other countries' signals,'' he said. “Thailandwants to see positive change inBurma, and becauseBurmawill play a key role in Asean next year, thus it will encourageBurmafor positive change.''

In Singapore, Foreign Minister George Yeo told Parliament on March 4 that while Asean would be non-confrontational, “in the end... some hard messages may have to be put across''.

He said "many'' of his fellow foreign ministers worry about Yangon taking over the chair and warned that unless the authorities in Myanmar handle the situation carefully, “Asean's credibility and cohesion would be jeopardised''.

In Jakarta, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Marty Natalegawa, said the chair is decided based on Asean's principle of consensus, taking into consideration "all aspects'' relevant to the matter.

He stressed that while some developments may be considered internal to a member country,Indonesiahas “also emphasised the need to see things from the perspective of Asean as a collective family of nations''.

Asean foreign ministers are to hold an informal meeting in the central PhilippineislandofCebufrom April 9-12, and the issue ofMyanmar’s chairmanship will be high on the agenda.

The chair is rotated alphabetically each year among Asean’s 10 members.Malaysiatakes over the chair this year andMyanmar’s turn is due in November 2006.

Analysts have said that it is still too early to tell ifMalaysia’s move could snowball sufficiently to forceMyanmarto appease its critics.

Summing up Asean’s dilemma,Singapore’s The Straits Times said in an editorial: “Asean will have to tackle the delicate issue of how far it is ready to make adjustments to its policy of not interfering in the domestic arrangements of member countries.

"Sovereignty is an important principle. Yet, it can be argued that where a country’s actions intrude on the well-being of Asean as a whole, the grouping should take action to ensure that the interest of the wider organisation isn’t compromised.”

In a commentary published inMalaysia’s New Straits Times, Mr Verghese Mathews,a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said that the “proverbial bells have begun to toll” for Myanmar.

"Myanmar is not easily threatened by rhetoric but analysts in its military corridors would not have failed to recognise that the Asean tide is uncharacteristically building up against Yangon at a time when the ruling junta is itself facing internal problems.

“The analysts probably realise that this is no time to play the recalcitrant and that it is no time for bravado even though deep down they realise that the fear of the military leaders is that every concession to the democratic forces is one loosened grip on the levers of power.

"The analysts need to point out that power is flowing out of the military hands sooner than later.

“More importantly, analysts in Yangon need to take cognisance of an important point - no one in Asean is pushing Myanmar into a corner - it is already there of its own making. Instead, what Asean is really attempting is to arrive at an acceptable solution to the problem,” said Mr Mathews, who as also Singapore'sambassador toCambodia.

*KL ups the ante on Rangoon (Bangkok Post, March 27)

* Bells are beginning to toll for Yangon(New Straits Times, March 26)

*Closing in Myanmar (The Straits Times, March 26)

* Bangkok not joining KL campaign to pressure Myanmar (The Straits Times, March 25)