CHIANG MAI, Thailand — It is now more than obvious that developments in Myanmar have taken a sad turn. The harden- ing of the junta’s position does not augur well for future United Nations involvement. The generals in Yangon will not roll out the red carpet for a U.N. envoy whose efforts they had neutralized in the past. Western sanctions are in place, but their efficacy has been questioned even by Myanmar’s dissidents.

Instead of voicing protests, Western capitals should assign groups of specialists to produce a list of smart sanctions aimed at the usurpers of power rather than Myanmar’s population at large.

One should bear in mind that, as far as the European Union is concerned, actual leverage is not very important, since only Britain, France and the Netherlands claim a measurable share of the country’s total foreign investment, and this at rather low levels (18.8 percent, 6.2 percent and 3.15 percent, respectively, according to Yangon’s figures.) The European side should speak with one voice, avoiding internal differences and attempts to protect particular business interests in the pariah country.

The fact that the announcement of the new wave of sanctions came just after the recent controversial Asian-Europe Meeting (ASEM) — instead of before or during it — reflected negatively on the EU.

It should also be pointed out that ASEM, viewed from the perspective of the common man either in Asia or in Europe, was lamentably overshadowed by whether Myanmar would participate or not. The low level of Myanmarese representation — a concession to the EU side — failed to hide a Myanmarese — and thus, by extension, Asian — victory in the row over participation.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is certainly embarrassed by the membership of such an appalling regime. But geography has its own imperatives.

The famous mantra of noninterference in domestic affairs may prove unpalatable concerning Myanmar, yet it has served ASEAN very well for decades. And it is still useful in a region that remains deprived of a democratic uniformity in the classic Hellenic sense.

Apart from these considerations, it is essential to recognize that Myanmar’s generals, despite their roughness, have achieved considerable scores on the diplomatic front. Their poor and neglected country is extremely important from a geopolitical perspective, especially for China, which has established a substantial strategic and economic relationship with Yangon that reflects Beijing’s long-held desire to obtain access to the Indian Ocean.

No matter how much the West agitates against Yangon, the generals feel at ease under China’s protective aura.

Tokyo, for its part, feels very uneasy about the developing China-Myanmar relationship, which strengthens the hand of its perennial competitor, Beijing. Even after the dramatic developments in Myanmar following the ousting of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, a Yomiuri editorial called for Japan to stick to its policy of engagement as a means of dissuading even closer ties between Yangon and Beijing. More liberal circles in Tokyo see things differently, but the prevailing mood is not to alienate Yangon.

This picture was further aggravated a few days ago by New Delhi’s red-carpet welcome of Myanmar’s paramount leader. This visit created a stir because of the timing — it came soon after the fall of Khin Nyunt — and the high levels of government involved. Moreover, it created a strange contrast between two symbols: Asia’s greatest democracy vs. one of its most ruthless regimes.

Observers have, of course, taken note of various imperatives for the India’s treatment — unrest in northeast India, insurgent sanctuaries in Myanmar, new energy resources, the need to counterbalance China’s influence — but a bitter aftertaste remains.

As Thai former diplomat and politician Kobsak Chutikul stated in a recent article, in the context of realpolitik it is easy to lose sight of the frail and lonely figure of Aung San Suu Kyi.

My own conclusion is that a solution to the Myanmar issue will emerge through a regional rather than a wider international effort. China’s involvement seems unavoidable. After all, a remedy involving China is already being pursued in the approach to North Korea’s nuclear development. So why not here as well?

China’s voice in Asia’s problems can no longer be dismissed. A more mature and responsible China can at the very least help reduce unacceptable departures from proper international behavior. However, since Beijing’s efforts alone are not enough, as in the case of Myanmar, perhaps the framework of ASEAN-plus-Three (Japan, China and South Korea), with additional input from India, could be put to effective use.

Pressure from the West should continue, but within the parameters explained above. Myanmar’s generals ultimately will have to come to their senses and listen to their immediate neighbors and partners. They should present a more humane face without waiting for 2006 — when their scheduled assumption of ASEAN’s presidency threatens to undermine and destroy a successful experiment in regional harmony.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.