The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has dodged a bullet. Myanmar’s decision to give up its turn as chairman of the group in 2006 saves ASEAN from international embarrassment. Myanmar’s status as a pariah state threatened to seriously hurt ASEAN as its dialogue partners vowed to avoid the group while Myanmar was chairman. Unfortunately, the real issue, the behavior of the military junta that rules the state, continues to frustrate the world. Until that government moves toward democracy — and the reforms it has promised to make — Myanmar will remain an international concern.
The chair of ASEAN rotates according to alphabetical order. In 2006, Myanmar was scheduled to take its turn. That posed real problems for ASEAN. Key partners, including the United States and the European Union, had warned that they would not send senior representatives to any meeting chaired by Myanmar, a move that would cut off any substantive discussion between ASEAN and those governments, marginalizing various meetings such as the U.S.-ASEAN dialogue and the Asia-EU Meeting (ASEM). This development would have serious repercussions for ASEAN’s attempts to regain the initiative in regional discussions and ongoing efforts to forge a regional identity.
The problem for those dialogue partners is the reprehensible human-rights record of the Myanmar government. The military junta took control in Yangon after losing national elections in 1990, and has ever since defied international demands to honor the results of that ballot and release Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been in prison or under house arrest. The military has said it intends to move toward democracy, but progress has been halting at best. The junta continues to be accused of repression and human-rights abuses, and Ms. Suu Kyi remains confined.
Dealing with Myanmar poses several dilemmas for ASEAN. First, the organization’s basic operating principle is “noninterference in the domestic affairs of member states,” a policy that made outright criticism of Yangon’s behavior difficult if not impossible. ASEAN could not be seen as openly pressing Myanmar to turn down the chair. As a result, there has been frantic behind-the-scenes work to come up with a face-saving formula that allowed the junta to refuse the post.
According to a statement released at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting held this week, Yangon passed on the job because it would be busy in 2006 with “the ongoing national reconciliation and democratization process.” ASEAN thanked the government of Myanmar “for not allowing its national preoccupation to affect ASEAN solidarity and cohesiveness.”
The second dilemma is more acute. ASEAN has engaged Myanmar, indeed even asked it to join eight years ago, because regional governments felt that ignoring the country would only encourage Yangon’s worst habits and render it susceptible to Chinese overtures. Bringing the country into ASEAN completed the organization’s regional identity, gave it the means to press for reform within Myanmar and countered Beijing’s attempt to extend its influence. By most accounts, though, the junta has been more successful at playing China against ASEAN than ASEAN has been at changing the regime’s behavior.
Myanmar’s decision saves ASEAN from considerable embarrassment. But while the Philippines will now take the chair in December, the larger issue remains. Yangon’s promises to reform have gone unfulfilled and the government refuses to meet with the United Nations special representative to Myanmar. ASEAN not only looks powerless to engage its most troublesome member, but its own credibility and reputation have been tarnished. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the organization to stake a claim to regional leadership in these circumstances. Concerns will grow given questions about what may have transpired behind the scenes to encourage Myanmar to refuse its turn in the chair.
The junta in Yangon is a blight on the region. Its policies have turned one of Asia’s richest countries into an economic basket case, and one of the world’s worst human-rights offenders. While the regime has resisted change, it is not immune to pressure. Two years ago, it revealed a seven step “road map” that would lead to democracy. This readiness to appear to embrace change is proof — denied by authoritarians everywhere — that public pressure can pay off. While the regime’s decision to give up the chair lets ASEAN off the hook for now, the organization and other concerned nations must not let up. There can be no substitute for honoring the promises that the government of Myanmar has made to its citizens and its diplomatic partners.
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