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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Once again, the experiment known as the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) enters the limelight for the wrong reasons. With preparation under way for a summit meeting in Hanoi next October, the focus is not so much on real issues as on the format for participation. Characteristically, a quick perusal of related news headlines is sadly amusing for its “bellicose” undertones.

“ASEAN gives EU ASEM warning” is one, while another states “Envoys seek to avert dispute.” If this is the essence of the prevailing atmosphere, one might actually wonder how much is left for substantive cooperation. The reason for this is what some view as the nightmare in having to deal with Myanmar as a new member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the European side presents its new members.

The deadlock may yet be broken, but for the moment, the echo of the Malaysian foreign minister’s complaint reverberates: “We consider that as an unreasonable condition [the European objection to Yangon’s inclusion]. ASEAN should be admitted as one body. If they are not willing to consider that, then we are not willing to consider the new extension of the European Union.”

At this point, things seem to be moving politically in Myanmar as the world anticipates the imminent release of the country’s prodemocracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. But the ruling junta has tried international patience for so many years that one would tend to accept the EU’s firm rejection of such a member from ASEM. We could consider this kind of diplomatic “allergy” as another type of “sanction” in the broad sense.

This writer naturally sides with all those who pray for a quick return to normalcy in this beautiful land. Nevertheless, a certain degree of skepticism cannot be avoided — not with regard to the need to oppose the regime but with regard to the efficacy of sanctions and related inconsistencies within the Western camp in particular. (Incidentally, last week there was an analytical discussion of sanctions in the Bangkok Post by Myanmar writer Myint Shwe, who basically concluded that those measures “miss the mark.”)

First of all, from what transpires in the international press, it is evident that all of the EU does not speak with one voice on Myanmar’s participation in ASEM: Some countries are adamant on exclusion; others are more flexible.

Second, the EU side should ponder priorities: What is more important — a battle over participation or the ASEM process itself? So far, public opinion at large has been led to ponder the first aspect, oblivious to other parameters of Europe-Asia cooperation. Is this trend really acceptable and intended?

Is it worth torpedoing the whole ASEM concept for the sake of opposing an unacceptable future partner? Why not let things run their normal course and ignore the Myanmar delegation within the ASEM body? Diplomacy reflects real life, and there are similar cases in social gatherings where “undesirables” are simply ignored.

More importantly, how can the EU justify so much protest in this instance while most of its member countries still maintain full diplomatic representations with Yangon? Why so much irritability in the multilateral arena and so much leniency bilaterally? Why not downgrade diplomatic missions altogether or even suspend them until the restoration of democracy?

ASEAN, apart from a generally different approach to Myanmar — which must be respected — should not respond to the EU’s objections by calling for a total rejection of EU’s new members. This would not be a proportionate response that gets to the root of the problem. To insist on the expediency of Yangon’s inclusion would be enough.

In a broader context, the European side — or at least some pillars either at the European Commission or at a bilateral level — seem to show extreme sensitivity over Myanmar while turning a blind eye to the latter’s main supporter, China.

An Oxford scholar, Steve Tsang, last week pointed out the contradiction in providing “a key military technology [Galileo satellite project] to an authoritarian state [China] that aims to subdue a working democracy [Taiwan] that subscribes to the same values as the EU.”

In this broader context, I am also puzzled by suggestions that the U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, Razali Ismail of Malaysia, be replaced for failing to contribute to an impressive breakthrough. Without trying to justify his actions, I would simply remind critics that the “mediator” can never perform miracles, but instead performs within the means provided to him by his mandate.

In conclusion, let the ASEM process develop its own dynamic, proceed with sanctions against the Yangon regime as long as they are “smart,” review and align the spectrum of diplomatic relations, avoid inconsistencies and, in the final analysis, face squarely the fact that the Myanmar junta exploits discrepancies while trying to survive — as depicted in the illustration of Myanmar journalist Myint Shwe — through its “elopement with China.”

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