Relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Europe are moving forward. The fact that foreign ministers from the two blocs held their two-day meeting in Vientiane, Laos, last week is a sign of progress. The relationship had been frozen for two years amid mounting acrimony. Divisions between the two groups are still wide, but they have a better chance of resolving their differences if they are talking to each other rather than at each other.
The cause of the standoff was ASEAN’s decision to admit Myanmar to the group three years ago. The policies of the Yangon government — its human-rights abuses, suppression of democracy and involvement in illegal activities — obliged European Union governments to protest its presence at meetings. ASEAN governments rallied around their organization’s integrity — their right to include whoever they chose — and its guiding principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of members. As a result, ministerial-level dialogue between ASEAN and the EU stalled.
This year, Myanmar made its way to the meeting. Its delegates were at the table, and Yangon’s policies were on the table. Indeed, the issue hung over all the talks. Fortunately, the two sides were able to work out a suitable compromise.
The leaders of the ruling junta in Myanmar agreed to free Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and other opposition leaders from virtual house arrest. Ms. Suu Kyi has long been a thorn in the side of the government, which overturned her party’s victory in national elections nearly a decade ago. She enjoys considerable overseas support and the government’s ham-fisted tactics have ensured that she stays in the limelight. She and other party leaders have been confined to their homes since the government interrupted her last trip outside the capital to conduct political activities.
In a bid to soften its image, the junta released six opposition leaders a week before the Laos meeting. Myanmar also agreed to allow an EU fact-finding mission to visit the country in January to confer with Ms. Suu Kyi and the junta. But it will not permit the EU members to become involved in any arbitration to encourage reconciliation talks between the junta and the NLD.
ASEAN’s willingness to compromise on the Myanmar issue is encouraging. Noninterference is a wonderful principle, but it is proving unworkable in practice — at least, not if ASEAN wants to be a credible international player. Myanmar’s admission to the organization was justified on the grounds that engagement would facilitate reform in the country.
The logic is impeccable, but things have not worked out as planned. The government in Yangon has proved unyielding; the political situation is unchanging and human rights continue to deteriorate. Prior to the ASEAN-EU meeting, Amnesty International issued a report condemning the junta for torture and ill-treatment of dissidents and minorities. Myanmar dismissed the report. Even the International Labor Organization is demanding sanctions against Myanmar and requesting that all member states and organizations review their relations with the country because of its use of forced labor.
Given the circumstances, the meeting’s call for “early” talks between the junta and the NLD and other opposition groups is encouraging. It endorsed U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail’s mission to promote reconciliation, another positive sign.
But declarations only mean so much. There must be real improvement in conditions in Myanmar, and that means putting pressure on Yangon to change. The work can be done behind the scenes and through various means, but there has to be a price for noncompliance.
ASEAN governments should take the lead, but Japan has a role to play as well. As a leading aid donor and having a long history of friendly relations with Myanmar, Japan should use every bit of influence it can muster to nudge the junta toward dialogue and respect for human rights.
Last week’s meeting was not entirely devoted to the Myanmar issue. The ministers pledged to support Indonesia’s territorial integrity and its efforts to resolve conflicts. The meeting also backed a new round of the World Trade Organization with a broad and balanced agenda. It affirmed the need for more market access and the removal of nontariff barriers.
ASEAN and the EU clearly desire a new and better partnership. Building it will not be easy. A guiding principle has to be mutual respect and equality among the two groups. But that same principle needs to be applied to citizens in both groups, not just their governments. That could be the key that unlocks the stalemate and allows the relationship to move forward.
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