Tue, 29 Jul 2003

Mahathir's Myanmar policy not just empty rhetoric

Bantarto Bandoro, Editor, The Indonesian Quarterly, Centre For Strategic And International Studies (CSIS) bandoro@csis.or.id

CPF Luhulima, Senior Fellow, CSIS and Member, Eminent Person Group for Asean Vision 2020 Jakarta, luhulima@csis.or.id

The issue of the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the prodemocracy leader in Myanmar, has again forced foreign ministers from the regions of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) and Europe, convened in Bali last week to seek a common approach to regional and global issues, to call on the regime in Yangon to abide by its pledges to free Suu Kyi.

Though the issue of Myanmar did not overshadow other issues key to the region, it has strengthened the perception of ASEAN and the European Union that Myanmar must move ahead with the democratization process.

The ministers underlined that the release of Suu Kyi would rectify the current setbacks in democracy in the country. Both ASEAN and European countries share the same concern over Myanmar: The military junta has done a great deal of economic and social damage to its own country by ignoring the calls from the world.

The issue of Myanmar does make a difference to the extent to which European countries and ASEAN have so far been affected by it. The concerns of European countries regarding Myanmar are related particularly to the development of democracy and human rights. Such concerns, however, have not in any way caused the European countries to react toward Myanmar differently from each other. That is to say, Myanmar is less a policy problem for the European countries. It can only ask ASEAN to put more pressure on the country.

Before and even after its inception into ASEAN, Myanmar was always a focus of debate within ASEAN. The rather slow development of the democratization process within Yangon and the seemingly uncooperative policy of the regime toward ASEAN have put ASEAN's solidarity to a real test. Individual ASEAN governments may indeed cherish human rights and democracy, but to push these at any ASEAN forum risks disunity within ASEAN.

Thus, Myanmar is indeed a real policy problem for ASEAN, meaning that its internal, as well as external, diplomacy have been hampered by the issue of Myanmar. Of all the moves ASEAN has initiated over the years to make the association stronger and its diplomacy more credible, admitting Myanmar has perhaps been a decision ASEAN has grown to regret the most. As one analyst observed, Myanmar's misbehavior has become a thorn in ASEAN's flesh (Asiatime on line, 2003).

That ASEAN has had to break with its tradition, at its recent Phnom Penh meeting, of not criticizing the affairs of a member state, by urging the release of Suu Kyi, is a sign of its belief that democracy and human rights must be upheld and respected. The courage to break with tradition has also been motivated by ASEAN's concern at its international image and reputation. By the unprecedented joint call for the release of Suu Kyi, ASEAN is making a cooperative gesture toward its international partners. But Yangon has not responded to the expressions of concern by members of the international community. In spite of pressure on ASEAN from outside the region, and the continued detention of Suu Kyi, ASEAN leaders have not lost patience with the generals in Yangon. Mahathir "fortunately" did.

In a recent media interview, Mahathir suggested that Myanmar be expelled from ASEAN. Mahathir's idea has come at a time when ASEAN is attempting to demonstrate to the world its political cohesiveness and solidarity, particularly during the threat of global terrorism, which is thought to have caused division within the association. Mahathir's suggestion has put ASEAN's political cohesiveness and solidarity to another real test.

With such a suggestion, Mahathir might have wanted to see ASEAN move faster in its handling of the Myanmar issue and thought that the unprecedented call by ASEAN was politically insufficient to change the behavior of the regime in Yangon. Mahathir's idea might have been dictated by the fact that ASEAN's international policy was held hostage by the generals in Yangon. He also observed that the generals in Yangon were probably using the association as a shield for their unwavering political stance.

It is not at all clear that other ASEAN members want to expel Myanmar. But Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirayuda was reported as saying that isolating Myanmar would not resolve the standoff and that ASEAN should not depart from the existing ASEAN's minister statement issued in Phnom Penh. This has always been a classic argument put forward by Indonesia and certain members of ASEAN, when ASEAN has been faced with a thorny issue like Myanmar. Indonesia, instead, will send special envoy Ali Alatas to convey a message from President Megawati Soekarnoputri to the Myanmar junta regarding the deteriorating situation there.

Whatever option ASEAN may adopt regarding the issue of Myanmar, Mahathir's remarks should be seen as a kind of reminder that ASEAN be more assertive in its policy toward Yangon. ASEAN has no choice but to act promptly if its international diplomacy and stand is not to be badly affected further by the Myanmar case. The expulsion of Myanmar from ASEAN seems unlikely to take effect immediately. Just as the decision to admit Myanmar was reached through consensus, its expulsion has to be done in a similar manner.

But the idea has already caused further division within ASEAN. This has always been the case when one member of the association proposes policy options, but the given policy does not seem to suit other members. This is, however, to be expected. But when it comes to something that touches the essence of democracy, ASEAN's policy should be firm and consistent.

In any event, the obligation to press for systematic and comprehensive change in Myanmar is now in ASEAN's court, not the world's, and it has to learn how to do so quickly. Otherwise, by virtue of its being an international governmental organization, ASEAN might as well accept the fact it cannot play a significant role in the Myanmar case. ASEAN should genuinely liberate itself from being held hostage by Myanmar for so long.