covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, June 16, 2024



By The Irrawaddy MARCH, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.3


Asean: United We Fall

"To make Burma a member of ASEAN at this moment is to encourage (the regime) to be more repressive." — Aung San Suu Kyi

In the months leading up to Asean’s thirtieth birthday in July of 1997, a consensus on whether to admit Burma into Asean had yet to form. Three Asean members — Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore — expressed concern over the consequences of Burma’s entrance which were echoed by opponents of Burma’s regime, including the US and some EU governments. Apprehension was expressed that Burma might not yet be ready to join Asean, that its admission would remove a key tool — Asean membership — to press the regime for political reform, and that in the future Burma’s inflexibility would cause tension within Asean and with its partners.

Asean heavies, Indonesia and Malaysia, moved in to exert their influence on others to drop their objections and to bring Asean into a union with Burma. In the view of Indonesian opposition leader Sri-Bintang, Indonesia’s President Suharto, Asean’s elder statesman and only remaining signatory to its founding charter, was "looking for friends to excuse the practice of fascism in Indonesia, to legitimize the practice of having only one single state ideology, one single party system and widespread intelligence services."

Aside from this realpolitik manoeuvering, the wishful thinking among Asean members that constructive engagement of Burma could balance its disparate interests chastened the qualms of the opposition. This strategy was expected to unite Asean into a larger and presumably stronger institution, enhance security interests in the region, and press the Burmese government to behave better.

Proponents of Burma’s admission argued that an enlarged Asean would enhance the organization and that enlargement in itself was a measure of success.

According to Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, "By having all of them [Burma, Laos, and Cambodia] in, we [Asean] are in a better position to contribute to peace and stability in our region." The successful track record of Asean over the last three decades, particularly the last ten years of economic growth, imbued its leaders with a sense that they could withstand any opposition to their intimacy with Burma from the rest of the world.

Furthermore, long term security concerns over the increased presence of China in Burma pushed Asean policy makers into closer relations with Burma. Of particular concern was the flow of Chinese arms into Burma and China’s interest in strategic naval bases on Burma’s coast. The engagement of Burma was intended to provide an alternative to China so as to promote regional stability and security.

Advocates of engagement invoked the special influence that neighboring Asean members could exert on Burma to change its ways, rather than isolation. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer stated that "the Aseans are the people who are likely to have the greatest influence on the Slorc [SPDC]."

But almost two years later, this approach has failed. Many of the previous warnings of July 1997 have come true and many of the arguments and conditions that supported the engagement of Burma no longer apply.

The economic fortitude of Asean has dissolved with the devaluation of the region’s currencies and the flight of foreign investment. This has weakened Asean’s position vis a vis other regional groups and made it more dependent as well, dispelling the myth that Burma’s inclusion would enhance Asean’s position in the world.

Asean attempts to halt the expansion of Chinese influence in Burma have not succeeded. Burma is increasingly reliant on Chinese military and technical assistance. Arms shipments along with military advisors have continued to pour into the Burma, and so have migrants from adjacent provinces in China.

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