The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Asean’s Albatross
By ASDA JAYANAMA Thursday, March 24, 2005

Asda JayanamaVeteran Thai diplomat Asda Jayanama was recently interviewed by The Irrawaddy. Asda, now retired, was Thai ambassador to the UN from 1996-2001. In the interview, Asda—known for his outspokenness—pulls no punches as he reviews the “failed” approach by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, to Burma, called “constructive engagement.” He further warns of a potential deepening Asean rift over Burma’s looming rotating chairmanship of the grouping.


Question: To date, how would you assess Asean’s “constructive engagement” policy regarding Burma?


Answer: The idea of “constructive engagement” was born in the Thai foreign ministry, and when we had this idea it was not to engage just government-to-government but to engage comprehensively on levels of business and culture—people-to-people. But what happened was that the Burmese wanted only to engage government-to-government, and we followed the Burmese desire, and Asean followed the Burmese desire. It became rather a rigid kind of thing and that’s how it basically failed because we can only engage on topics that the Burmese government agrees to engage on, which are mainly economic… So it [constructive engagement] failed because of the Burmese interpretation.


Q: Asean has maintained a policy of non-interference in member states for 38 years. Regarding Burma, is this policy still feasible?


A: There are several examples where we have interfered in the internal policy of other countries, such as Malaysia. And there is the problem with the south of Thailand, which is criticized by Malaysia. So we can also criticize Burma. We can respect internal problems, but once a country’s internal problems and internal policies become a problem for us then we have the right to criticize. We should begin to interpret the situation in our way, the Asean way. We should look at the Burma problem as an Asean collective responsibility. But Asean is not united versus Burma, and if Asean is not united it becomes very difficult… How determined are we?


Q: Perhaps the question of whether Burma will take over the chairmanship of Asean in 2006 and host next year’s annual meeting, as scheduled, is a test of that determination?


A: I think the West has a lot to do with whether or not Burma will hold the chairmanship. If the United States and the European Union, for example, threaten not to turn up in Rangoon [for the Asean annual meeting] that will have its effect. But the West is also not determined enough. Although they have said that it’s not going to look good, they have not specifically threatened to boycott the meeting. Maybe they have hinted, or maybe some of us have encouraged them to hint this. If they do attend the meeting, it is a way of showing their approval and political support or political non-objection to the Burmese regime in spite of what they said in the resolution at the UN. The West was very active and very strong in condemning the regime and wanting the UN resolution to be stronger. So how can they go to a country which they condemn, and has been condemned by the UN for over 10 years? As for Asean, well, we have to attend because we’re neighbors but the West doesn’t have to.


Q: What might be the repercussions for Asean if Burma does assume the chairmanship? How damaging will it be for the region if dialogue partners such as the US and the EU don’t attend Asean’s annual meeting?


A: It will look bad. It creates a bad image and it will split Asean more. It will worsen Asean’s attitude towards Burma. At the same time, [communist] countries like Laos and Vietnam will say that the West is terrible, that they’re blackmailing us. It will distance one part of Asean against the other. The Lao, Cambodians and Vietnamese are already going back to the formula of the Indochinese grouping


Q: Why does Burma seem to have such power over Asean?


A: It is the mentality of Asean politicians; the mentality of the Malaysians and Indonesians because they are ex-colonies [like Burma], and maybe a little bit the Singaporean mentality too. For the Singaporeans it is mainly business, but they tend to follow Indonesia and Malaysia to a certain extent because they’re in the middle [geographically]. In Malaysia in particular, the mentality is to get back at the West. It’s an inferiority complex: “If the West  tells me to do it, I won’t do it.” Just to show that the West is no longer in control. So, through Burma, they get the satisfaction of not doing what the West wants. In Thailand’s case, it is not an inferiority complex because we don’t have that [colonial history], that’s why we’re friendly with the West. In our case, at least during this Thaksin [Shinawatra] regime, it’s purely business.


Q: So for Thailand, the motivation to engage with Burma is purely economic?


A: Thaksin’s view of man is that man is an economic animal. And he has a business mentality; once a businessman, always a businessman. The way he looks at Burma is from a business point of view. He thinks that by giving financial aid he will eventually be in control. So many thousands of millions of baht, and he keeps giving to the extent that they will feel completely dependent—although they talk about pride; Win Aung [former Burmese foreign minister] said of the Thai government: ‘They think we’re monkeys that they can throw bananas to and that’s enough.’ Basically, Thaksin thinks he can control these people through money. This is also the way he operates in Thailand; he believes that everyone has a price.


[Thai Prime Minister] Thaksin [Shinawatra] doesn’t know anything about the UN, and I can tell you this is not just hearsay.
—Asda Jayanama


Q: So what do you think Thailand’s stance towards Burma should be?


A: I have always said very clearly that first of all we have to be, not necessarily 100 percent principled, but principled in our view about a totalitarian regime … But at the same time, my other view about Burma is that Burma is a neighboring country. You should not quarrel with your neighbors and you should not go to war with your neighbors over this principle. Because, after all, if the Burmese people do not rise up against this regime, we cannot go and invade the country. So we should have relations, maybe not excellent relations but reasonable relations, talking relations or correct relations.


Q: While Asean looks towards engagement, the US imposes economic sanctions …


A: I think they can go on doing this. It does hurt, not a great deal but it does hurt a little bit. Basically it’s a political statement, and it cannot be effective because neighbors like Thailand, China, India, Bangladesh don’t cooperate. To be effective you’ve got to have all the neighbors cooperating, at least 70 to 80 percent and that’s a problem. But I think Burma is not important to the West so they can make their statement. In a way I think it’s good that they continue doing it. Although it’s not that effective, that’s no problem. Do it.


Q: Despite repeated requests, the UN’s special rapporteur on Burma has not been allowed to visit the country since 2003. If Burma shows such flagrant disregard for diplomatic engagement how can the UN or Asean encourage political change in Burma? Is it possible for political change to come from outside the country?


A: Many people say that to have the kind of government you want you have to fight for it, from the inside. There are very few examples whereby outsiders can pressure those inside for a change of government. The one example is South Africa, but even then there was a lot of internal struggle and those on the inside played a very strong role. In the case of Burma—I have talked to some Burmese exiles about this and I think they were a little shocked—there should be some physical resistance. You cannot rely on outsiders alone.


Q: Critics say Thailand’s own human rights record has been deteriorating over the past few years. Do you see cause for concern with regard to Thailand’s relations within the international community?


A: We are concerned, and even Thaksin says he is now concerned. And he’s concerned because the US is concerned.


Q: Prime Minister Thaksin has voiced condemnation of the UN. He declared, for instance, that “the UN is not my father” in response to criticisms of his government’s 2003 war on drugs. How does this affect Thailand’s relationship with the UN?


A: Thaksin doesn’t know anything about the UN and I can tell you that this is not just hearsay. I have first-hand experience. I was director-general of the International Organizations Department [of the foreign ministry] when Thaksin came in as foreign minister for a few months. Thaksin was smart in that he organized a seminar for senior officials of the ministry and in that seminar he asked all of us to vote on our priorities for foreign policy. Thaksin thought there were too many priorities. He wanted only four priorities to make things easier so he suggested we just discard the United Nations as a priority and ignore it.


Q: What is your opinion of Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai’s campaign for the post of UN secretary general of the UN? What are his chances?


A: And now Surakiart wants to be secretary general, which is ridiculous. He knows nothing about the UN and he wants to lead the UN. I think there is no way at all Surakiart will ever make it as secretary general of the UN.

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