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Burma, ASEAN and the Politics of Responsibility

By Stephen Brookes in Yangon
Asia Times May 30, 1997


Just after daybreak on the 9th of May, 18,000 identically-clad people assembled in the Kantarawaday stadium in the town of Loikaw in upper Myanmar. Sitting cross-legged on the ground in evenly-spaced rows, they waited patiently in the early morning sun as the threat to their existence was explained to them.

"As all the comrades are aware, ASEAN is extending welcome to Myanmar's integration," a speaker intoned sternly to the crowd. "But neo-colonialists have resorted to all means to prevent Myanmar's integration into ASEAN," he warned. "Neo-colonialists outside the country and their stooges inside colluded in their ruthless schemes to jeopardize Myanmar's relations with South East Asian nations, cause social and religious conflicts and incite riots and unrest!"

The rhetoric may have been clumsy, but the message was clear. And the pro-ASEAN, anti-US rally was only one of dozens staged recently by the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the political wing of Myanmar's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as foreign minsters from the Association of South East Asian Nations prepare to meet Saturday to settle the date for Myanmar's admission.

albright.jpg
Albright:  Asia not interested
The issue has generated an international squabble, and the battle lines have been drawn for more than a year. The SLORC has made admission a top priority, while opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is dead-set against it. The ASEAN leaders, saying they want to promote stability and economic development in the region, are in favor, while the United States has been energetically lobbying ASEAN to delay, saying it should put more pressure on Myanmar's government to improve its human rights record.

"I would very much like to slow down the possibility of Burma [Myanmar] coming into the ASEAN,'' US Secretary of State Madelaine Albright told a Senate committee hearing last week. "We have tried very hard to get the ASEAN countries to follow our  steps, but they don't seem to be interested."

In fact, the bickering is just political theater. Everyone knows that Myanmar's membership this year is a sure thing, whether it happens in July (which looks increasingly likely) or in December, and a five month wait makes no real difference to anyone in the region.

But the timing issue has presented an opportunity for political posturing on every side. The United States has used it to pretend it's tough on authoritarian regimes. The SLORC has used it to attack Suu Kyi as a neo-colonialist and an enemy of the state. And ASEAN has used it to show that it is an assertive body that has its own mind and makes its own decisions -- and is not afraid to stand up to the West.

Most of Asia will be relieved when the decision is finally announced and the snarling is over. Nevertheless, the debate over Myanmar has done one important thing: it has brought both the romanticism of the West and the pragmatism of South East Asia into sharp relief.

Washington's policy, as exemplified by the economic sanctions it announced last month, is to isolate the SLORC diplomatically and undermine the Myanmar economy. This is supposed to bring about democratic change, although no one in Washington has explained exactly how, and most analysts agree that unilateral sanctions have almost no significant economic impact.

The truth is, the American sanctions were never meant to be a realistic tactic for promoting democracy. Rather, they were merely a gesture to express disapproval of Myanmar's military government. "There are times when the United States needs to stand up and say a situation in a country is so reprehensible and human rights are being violated by such a broad degree that we have do something about it," sniffed a State Department spokesman when the sanctions were announced.

But to many Asian eyes, the sanctions appear merely irresponsible -- the act of a country that doesn't have to live with the consequences of its actions. "America acts tough on Myanmar, because they don't have to worry about what happens," a Japanese businessman in Yangon said after the announcement. "If Myanmar becomes unstable, they don't care. It doesn't affect the United States in any way. But they're afraid to put sanctions on China, because they know they will have to pay a price."

This lack of responsibility lends a curious irony to the moral stance taken by Suu Kyi and the United States. Both are careful to avoid saying that sanctions are designed to create economic instability and social unrest -- but privately most activists admit that that's exactly what they are supposed to do.

But who picks up the pieces if the US policy is successful, and Myanmar's economy does collapse? America has been notably silent on this. If Washington can successfully weaken the SLORC's grip on power, is it prepared to send in the Marines if civil war breaks out among the many armed ethnic groups? Here too, Washington has been silent. Would it prepared to prop up the National League for Democracy with money and military support until it could form a stable government? Again -- more silence.

ASEAN, on the other hand, cannot afford to act so casually. They know that it isn't really important whether they "approve" of the SLORC or not. What matters is the reality: the SLORC is running the country and is probably going to run it for some time. ASEAN can't indulge in the posturing of the United States -- it knows that if Myanmar's economy collapses or the country becomes unstable, then the entire region will suffer the consequences. And that is something that, as responsible leaders, they must defend against.

"We have all agreed not to leave Myanmar behind," Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi said earlier this month. "Otherwise, the situation may deteriorate to a point that will jeopardise the stability of the region."
 
Moreover, if Western sanctions generate instability in Myanmar, it is ASEAN which will have to clean up the damage. As Philippine Foreign Minister Domingo Siazon suggested on May 1, "Those who are far away, if this particular case should not turn out to be successful, they do not really suffer the strategic consequences. We are involved, we are very near. You cannot leave Myanmar to collapse or to have an internal revolution."

So is it really any wonder that ASEAN, as Albright complained, does "not seem to be interested" in following the US lead?

Posted on Friday, July 27, 2007 at 01:25PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

I read a similar story to this on http://tothecenter.com/
May 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJason

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