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Sizing up ASEAN’s role on Burma

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Burma’s rejection of a proposed briefing of UN special envoy to Burma before the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been downplayed in the context of the group’s annual summit that saw the signing of a draft charter. This rejection however significantly impacts the group’s role in the transition to democracy, and also threatens the charter’s ratification.
While the recently concluded summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) may have been a significant milestone because of the signing of the charter, what may be more significant in for the regional group is what did not happen:  a briefing to the region’s leaders by UN special envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari.

Singapore, the current ASEAN chair and host of this year’s summit, invited the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari to brief the group’s heads of state on the progress of his mission. The significance of this invitation to Gambari is reflected in a recent UN Security Council (UNSC) press statement stressing the importance of the recently concluded summit. The statement released prior to the ASEAN Summit highlighted the “important role” that ASEAN plays “in supporting a peaceful transition to democracy, and supporting the United Nations good offices mission.”

Gambari’s briefing would have taken place around the East Asian Summit that included, aside from ASEAN heads of state, the leaders from China, Japan, South Korea, and India, among others. Together with ASEAN, these countries maintain extensive diplomatic, economic and military ties with the junta, and are seen as decisive in the influencing Burma’s generals towards dialogue and change. Thus far, limited economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States have failed to budge the military rulers from their 45-year iron fisted rule.

But invoking ASEAN’s tradition of non-interference and decision by consensus, Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein asserted that the military regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy rallies in September was a domestic affair, and that it was “capable of handling the situation by itself”. Thein Sein insisted said that Gambari should only report to the UNSC. Thus, Gambari’s briefing was cancelled.

The key impact of the cancellation of the briefing is to effectively diminish ASEAN’s role in Burma’s transition. ASEAN’s decision has exposed divisions within the group on how to handle Burma. Prior to this only Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have clearly spoken out against the violent crackdown in Rangoon and key cities in September. Other ASEAN member states kept their usual silence amidst the unprecedented global uproar.

Had it spoken as a group during its regional summit, ASEAN would have sent strong and clear signal that the military regime should heed world opinion for democracy and dialogue. And with ASEAN defaulting on such a simple matter as the Gambari briefing, there is less likelihood for the group itself to take a stronger position in the future on Burma.

It also sends a message to regional players that ASEAN is not keen to push for change. Major regional players who play important roles in propping up the military junta such as South Korea, India and China should be coaxed into pushing for change in Burma. In the face of the violent crackdown, these countries have done little except to pay lip service for restraint in the face of negative world opinion against the regime.

Because ASEAN caved in to Burma’s demands, the group will find it more difficult in the future to attain a consensus for action on its recalcitrant member. This prospect carries important implications for the draft charter that ASEAN’s leaders signed during the summit. ASEAN’s decision to give in to Burma is an important measure of how well the new charter strengthens ASEAN as a collective organisation, and the priority values of the regional organization.

The draft charter gives a legal and institutional framework to ASEAN which has existed for 40 years as an informal group of states. Its vision is to transform the group into a single economic community similar to the European Union. Despite its primarily economic intent, the draft charter can be credited with the inclusion of significant principles and provisions on human rights.

However, the draft charter has been criticised for merely codifying existing norms—including non-interference and decision by consensus—that prioritise the interests of member states over the development of a strong regional entity.  Institutionalising these practices means that any proposed collective action on an erring member can effectively be vetoed by that same country—as demonstrated by Burma in the recent summit. ASEAN’s practice of non-interference has protected members from criticism and shall weaken the group from acting as a collective entity in the future.

Furthermore, Burma’s veto of the Gambari briefing symbolically reflects the region’s reputation of the low priority given to realizing human rights and democracy. The timing of this fiasco could not have occurred at a worse time than the signing of the charter, which commits ASEAN members “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law and to promote human rights and fundamental freedom,” and to the establishment of a “human rights body”.  In allowing Burma’s word to take precedence, ASEAN may have lost a key defining moment in its development as a full fledged regional organization to protect and promote human rights.

The practical implications of this event for ASEAN was immediately felt when Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo raised the possibility that the Philippine Congress may not ratify the ASEAN charter until it sees that Burma is moving towards the path of democracy and releasing the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This possibility indicates that the disunity within the region over Burma threatens the existence of ASEAN itself.