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CHANG MAI, Thailand — There has been a lot of discussion recently about Myanmar’s assumption of the presidency of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. It is obvious that most members wish to prevent this anomaly from happening. Let’s reflect on some of the more realistic, even cynical, aspects of this imbroglio.

First, many things may develop before 2006. The Myanmar regime may finally present a gentler face or fall apart, or pressure from ASEAN and the international community may oblige the regime to relinquish its chairmanship before a real crisis develops.

Second, although there is obvious discomfort among several more democratically mature ASEAN governments, a bloc of others still cling to the mantra of noninterference in domestic affairs. It is difficult to see unanimity or a consensus emerging on the need to change the presidency-rotation process and thus avoid an approaching embarrassment managed by the Yangon generals.

Third, at the ASEAN parliament level there has been positive movement toward demanding that Myanmar return to normalcy. The question is: Can it be sustained and incorporated in government policy?

Remarks like that made recently by America’s former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke — that Croatia should hand over war criminals as a condition for joining the European Union — cannot be applied to Myanmar because it already belongs to ASEAN. It is not a case of “admitting” but rather “expelling” — something easier said than done.

The West unfortunately cannot present a unified and convincing attitude: There are several variations, as the demon of prospective business projects always lurks under the surface.

The United States so far seems adamant about imposing sanctions and boycotting meetings under a Myanmar presidency, while the EU appears hesitant as it tries to absorb a new report from experts that appears to be potentially supportive of the notion of resuming high-level talks with the junta.

All this takes place even as the West feels no moral constraints in dealing with other repressive and undemocratic governments in the region. (“Degrees” of repression should not distract us from missing democratic principles.)

So what could be a reasonable way out of the impasse?

One thought, as ironic as it sounds, would be to include China, the generals’ main supporter, in the international drive for Myanmar’s normalization. Of course, this is so unrealistic that it cannot be seriously undertaken. But it is useful to bring it up as a reminder of what really lies at the core of the problem — besides the Yangon regime’s intransigence.

Another possibility is to signal to the generals with one unwavering voice that the West [and ASEAN] are ready to work with a dictatorial ASEAN presidency for the sake of the broader goals of ASEAN and its partners, provided that the generals release Aung San Suu Kyi, guarantee her continuous free movement and political activity, release several hundred other detained political supporters and activists, and move toward a swift and lasting national reconciliation.

All players must be included in a convincing and transparent process of a return to normalcy without fear of the government’s regressing to periods of arrest. The West should press for the rule of law without insisting on transplanting the regime with a monolithic Western democracy. Discourse about the preponderance of communal vs. individual rights should be left to the Myanmar people to decide. And that should be done in an atmosphere free of military coercion or other manipulations, and with the full participation of all political leaders.

In a worst case scenario, the West should be prepared to distance itself from all meetings under the generals’ presidency and to make this position clear now. It would not be the end of the world — or the end of the ASEAN dialogue process — if no progress were made during the year of the Myanmar chairmanship. There have been years of minimal output in the past for less spectacular reasons, a condition common in similar international groupings plagued with conference fatigue.

There would be an undeniable benefit: an overwhelming loss of face for Yangon, something much more important in Asia than any number of sanctions!

As for sanctions themselves, as repeatedly argued by a score of analysts, they must be “smart” — targeting the absconders of democracy and not the innocent people, the real victims who cannot be judged by the Napoleonic aphorism that, next to the crime of oppression, second in abhorrence is the crime of not resisting one’s oppressors. The blood of nurses and students in 1988 could not stop the might of bullets.

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