Relations between Europe and Asia continue to be the weakest link in the three-legged global economy. Efforts to remedy that defect have been made. One of the most important is the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) process that began in 1997. Those meetings have made some progress, but a deeper dialogue between the two regions has been stymied by politics. The most recent obstacle has been the dispute over Myanmar between European Union governments and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Wisely, if belatedly, the two groups have decided to keep their relationship from being held hostage to this standoff.
The human-rights record of Myanmar’s military junta is the problem. EU governments are unwilling to sit down with that government’s representatives for official talks, complaining — rightly — that ministerial-level meetings have a symbolic importance. ASEAN member states counter that the group’s unity must be respected; Myanmar cannot be singled out. Unable to bridge the gap between the two positions, high-level consultations have been blocked for two years.
This week, a compromise was reached. After two previous cancellations, the ASEAN-EU Joint Cooperation Committee will meet in May. Myanmar’s delegates will attend, but in a “passive” role — they will not be allowed to speak. The agreement signals the importance the EU attaches to ties with Southeast Asia. But given the emphasis on “dialogue,” a “mute” participant has a symbolic importance of its own.
ASEAN is right to say that Myanmar is a member of the group and that the EU must respect the organization’s prerogatives. But then, the EU is within its rights to declare that the behavior of the Myanmar government offends its sensibilities. Strangely, common ground should not be hard to find. ASEAN’s policy of “constructive engagement” with Yangon is designed to encourage Myanmar to hew to international norms. Myanmar’s stubborn refusal to do that has forced ASEAN to pay a price. Now, Myanmar should repay its debt to ASEAN by changing the way it treats its own citizens. That does not seem too much to ask.
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