The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Asean and the Lady

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest offers Asean a chance to re-engage with Burma on the issue of democratic reform  

 In the afternoon of Nov. 22, an official of the Philippines’ ruling Liberal Party received a call from his counterpart in Burma’s outlawed National League for Democracy. Moments later, the phones at both ends changed hands, and soon Philippine President Benigno Aquino III was speaking with Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

During their 15-minute conversation, Suu Kyi thanked Aquino for supporting democracy in Burma, and he responded by saying that he would do whatever he could to promote reform in the military-ruled country. He went on to say that instability in Burma was adversely affecting its neighbors, as seen recently with the influx of refugees into Thailand due to fighting near the two countries’ border. He also reiterated that while other leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) were not as vocal in expressing their desire to see real change in Burma, they shared his view that the country must move toward democracy and stability—not only for its own sake, but also for that of its neighbors.

A senior aide to Aquino told The Irrawaddy that the president also discussed the limits of his role in dealing with Burma. According to the aide, Aquino informed Suu Kyi that diplomatic and political protocols within Asean made it difficult for him to be more overt in his efforts to help Burma, but added that he would try to play a role within those parameters. At the Hanoi summit in October, Aquino was the only Asean leader calling for Suu Kyi’s freedom.

This sentiment immediately harked back to similar diplomatic maneuvers of more than a decade ago. In July 1999, Thailand’s then foreign minister, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, surprised his Asean colleagues during an informal meeting in Manila by proposing that the time had come to adopt a more proactive “flexible engagement” policy to address issues related to Burma. As he envisaged it, this approach was about open and frank discussion on issues of mutual concern among members that would lead to common solutions.

When it comes to the situation in Burma, Aquino and Surin—who is now the secretary-general of Asean—share a common vision of how the grouping can deal with problems facing member states and the organization as a whole. This vision is still very much alive, despite the Burmese regime’s recalcitrance. It was most recently in evidence 10 days before Burma’s controversial Nov. 7 election, when Asean leaders appealed to the junta to ensure that the country’s first vote in two decades was free, fair and inclusive. The regime gave its usual assurances that this would be the case, but at the same time spurned offers of help with the election. Despite the consistent refusal of Burma’s ruling generals to accept the so-called Asean peer review and assistance, however, the grouping has never totally given up on the country. The views that Aquino alluded to among his colleagues are the product of long-standing perseverance and engagement with Burma. The attempt to get the regime to accept Asean involvement in the election was just the bloc’s latest effort to push the envelope.

On other occasions, these efforts have clearly paid off. The rehabilitation of the Irrawaddy delta in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis demonstrated how resilient Asean could be in coping with a stubborn member country. Citing principles and norms enshrined in the Asean Charter and the concept of collective responsibility, the grouping finally managed to persuade the regime to allow outsiders to play a role in dealing with a domestic crisis. Asean successfully spearheaded an international humanitarian assistance effort, working alongside the junta and the United Nations and international relief agencies. This process of re-engagement with Burma despite restrictions will not only continue but will intensify in the post-election period.

At present, Asean leaders are saying very little about the current political transition. They are willing to watch from the sidelines for the time being, waiting for a new government to be formed early next year. They are hoping to forge a concrete proposal to assist Burma in reinforcing future changes—whatever they might be. Informal discussions have already begun on various plans to work with the new government’s leaders and to help strengthen new institutions that have to be set up following the election.

One concern is that the new Burmese government could end up displaying the same kind of resistance to change that its predecessor did. As the incoming Asean chair, Indonesia will thus face twin challenges in interacting with Burma. First of all, Jakarta will play a pivotal role in further integrating the new government into the Asean scheme of things, to ensure that it will be accepted by the international community, which uniformly condemned the flawed election. To increase its credibility, Burma will certainly assume the Asean chair, which it skipped in 2005,  in 2014, after Cambodia and Brunei have taken their turns. Secondly, Indonesia, as the only Southeast Asian member of the G20, will have to walk a tightrope to balance between regional and international expectations. Failure to do so could easily undermine Jakarta’s ambition of raising the Asean community’s international stature.

Seen from this perspective, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi following the election was a source of relief for Asean. Much is at stake in how Suu Kyi—one of Asean’s most prominent citizens—is treated. The Asean Charter and all of the other sacred documents produced by the grouping will be seen as worthless if Suu Kyi’s case is mishandled.

More than the Asean leaders would like to admit, Suu Kyi has a moral authority that far exceeds anything they can claim for themselves. She can challenge them to look at her case and honor their pledge to protect her rights as a citizen of Asean. There is no need to remind them that the Asean Charter begins with the words, “We the peoples,” echoing the preamble of the American Declaration of Independence. During the drafting process of the terms of reference in 2007, this choice of words was approved quickly and without dissension.

Suu Kyi has to capture that high moral ground by reaching out to all stakeholders within Asean, especially its leaders and bureaucrats. Unlike the restrictive situation that prevailed when she was released for the first time in 1995, there are now more Asean citizens living in a democratic environment than ever before. Indonesia, which used to serve as a model of the current Burmese military junta, has transformed itself into a vibrant democracy. All Asean members have also pledged to make the grouping a people-oriented community.

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