Tue, 05 Aug 2003

Myanmar: A solid int'l front

Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation Asia News Network, Bangkok

The consolidation of support from various parts of the world calling for freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi has reached a tipping point: The political crisis has become internationalized. Thanks to the brutal crackdown by the regime of Burma (Myanmar), international pressure has been solidified, sustained and augmented. Before long, the United Nations will play a more prominent role in easing the situation.

In the past two months, these external forces have already forced the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well countries sharing borders with Burma -- Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh -- to review their engagement with the beleaguered country.

Tainted by the crisis, ASEAN was first to respond and since then has repeatedly called for Suu Kyi's release. Rangoon (Yangon) has turned a deaf ear. ASEAN is now looking for a way to use existing mechanisms such as the ASEAN Troika as a conduit to exert influence inside Burma.

The ASEAN Troika was used successfully on a non-ASEAN member to end the political impasse over the 1997 coup in Cambodia. Without Rangoon's permission, the troika team would be rendered powerless. The longer ASEAN waits, the more frustrated its members will become and that could influence the summit meeting of their leaders in Bali on Oct. 7-8.

Since Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's bashing of Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have upped the ante against Burma beyond the release of Suu Kyi. They want to see the political dialog and national reconciliation process proceed, otherwise there will be punitive measures against Burma. They also perceive the ongoing impasse as a threat to their security.

The failure of ASEAN to develop adequate political mechanisms to address conflicts within the grouping would tempt external powers to interfere. As a preventive measure, ASEAN must establish a common security community based on new rules that reflect changes in the post Cold War world.

To do so, ASEAN leaders must support the Indonesian plan to set up ASEAN Security Community. it is a prerequisite if there are to be punitive measures against a member.

ASEAN's position has placed Thailand's Burma policy in a dilemma. Thailand has now become the military regime's closest friend. Bangkok's willingness to accommodate Rangoon has surprised the international community. Thailand has been playing a cat-and-mouse game over its proposed "road map" on Burma.

Although several non-ASEAN countries expressed interest in the Thai overture, the government has somehow failed to send a strong signal to Burma that its time is running out and it must act now for face a dire consequence.

As the international pressure intensifies, the UN Security Council is likely to step in. Special UN envoy for Burma Razali Ismail went to New York in mid-July to give an informal briefing to the UNSC members on his last visit to Rangoon. Later on the UNSC members agreed to invite Razali to make an official briefing to them in future on Burma.

It is an open secret that the UN has its own road map on Burma, which has been on the drawing board since the UN General Assembly took up political and human-rights issues inside Burma in the past decade. The UN plan will be more visible if the regional effort fails to materialize. The UN successfully ran Cambodia and East Timor during transitional periods and sponsored elections there that led to elected governments in place today.

The mounting international pressure also disturbs China, India and Bangladesh, with which Burma has developed closer relations as a means to counter economic sanctions. Since the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act will hurt Burma's ailing economy and exports, border trade with these countries will become even more important for the regime's economic survival. Pressure from Western countries will now shift to their border trade with Burma.

While China continues to stand firm on its principle of non- intervention, China-Burma ties have been put under the world's microscope. With its international standing and ASEAN-China ties at stake, Beijing might distance itself a little from Rangoon. ASEAN's frustration over Burma could have a spill-over effect on its relations with China.

As Suu Kyi's detention continues, ASEAN is less likely to defend Burma as it used to do in the past. If Beijing's backing increases Burma's intransigent attitude, it would alienate the grouping and jeopardize their excellent ties.

Burma has long been a yardstick for China's influence in Southeast Asia. To counter China's growing influence, ASEAN decided to embrace Burma in January 1995, leading to its membership in 1997. For now, China's influence is proliferating far and wide in Burma, very much to the chagrin of ASEAN.

Burma's effort to stop the internationalization of protest and pressure against it will not succeed because of the worsening of domestic conditions. Economic hardships and political oppression could force the Burmese people on the streets again.

If this process intensifies with every player at regional and international levels coming into play, a regime change in Burma is inevitable.