Thu, 19 Jun 2003

Surprising ASEAN

The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) deserve high praise for their surprising courage to depart from the group's rigid non-interference principles and rebuke the Myanmar military junta, which still stubbornly refuses to release the country's pro-democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.

By taking that decision, the ministers have proved that ASEAN can handle its own business with maturity, and adjust itself to the international values of democracy and humanity.

Clearly, the ministers also cannot just turn a collective deaf ear to international outcries protesting Myanmar's tough stance on Suu Kyi, and they have responded positively to these protests.

Because of their new stance on Myanmar, ASEAN is now in a much better position to meet with their 10 counterparts, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the two-day ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) starting on Wednesday. Powell has openly urged Yangon to immediately release the opposition leader from detention, while Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi has also threatened to cut off aid to Myanmar if Suu Kyi is not released.

And, honestly speaking, it was against our expectation -- and it even surprised Myanmar Foreign Minister Win Aung -- that Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the staunchest supporters of non-interference, would be so proactive in seeking Suu Kyi's release.

"What can I say? This is the first time that ASEAN has commented on the internal affairs of one of its members. But for the sake of ASEAN solidarity, I had to agree," Win Aung commented, in a rather grumbling mood, after attending the two- day meeting in Phnom Penh.

Win Aung was right in saying that he could not defy the ASEAN decision. We want to remind the ruling Myanmarese generals that they have only themselves to blame for the embarrassment, having slapped ASEAN in the face with their refusal to free the Nobel Peace Prize laureate before the ministerial meeting.

They wrongly thought that their neighbors would not bother with their mistreatment of Suu Kyi, and now have no choice but to fulfill the demands of their neighbors. If they fail, they will be totally isolated from the world, because even their nearest neighbors have lost their trust in the country's military leaders.

The ministers have created a very far-reaching precedence for the future of ASEAN. Now ASEAN members, especially those that are still not fully democratic, can no longer so easily shield themselves behind the pretext of "domestic affairs" in facing criticism from other members of the group and from the world.

In their joint statement, the ministers said they "looked forward to the early lifting of restrictions placed on San Suu Kyi". Despite the soft wording, it was strong criticism against the Myanmar military junta.

It is a situation not unlike that in a neighborhood, where people have to act against a neighbor who continually beats his wife. The neighbors can no longer look passively on, or pretend not to know what is happening to her, because it could endanger her life and it has also disturbed the neighbors'.

There is a need now for ASEAN to draw a line on how they should behave if they face such a situation in the future, because obviously the group cannot retract the new precedence.

During their annual summit in Bali this October, ASEAN leaders need to discuss the issue further. They have taken a courageous decision to show that they care about the fate of the Myanmarese people, because it was impossible for the ministers to take the decisions without prior approval from their superiors.

This is a lesson for the 10-country grouping. They must accept the new international norms of democracy and respect of human rights, and they can no longer hide behind their neighbors' backs to protect their wrongdoings.

As Indonesia is the largest and strategically most influential member of the association, her leaders and the people now have to realize this country can also be scolded by its neighbors when her domestic problems disturb the peace.

This is just an example: One day, if the situation in Aceh remains unresolved, it is not impossible that our neighbors will say that Indonesia must do something to restore the peace in the province, because their security is directly affected by the upheavals in the province.

Finally, we would like to extend our sincere appreciation to the 10 foreign ministers for their historic decision. Hopefully, Suu Kyi will not only soon enjoy her freedom, but also regain the opportunity to serve her nation, which has been waiting for her to take the helm since her 1990 landslide victory.