Friday, April 21, 2006

Myanmar: Diplomacy is not a one-way street


ASEAN should perhaps ask junta if a win-win solution is possible

Friday • April 21, 2006

Thang D Nguyen

ALMOST everyone has tried to help free Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy activist and Nobel peace laureate, from her oppression by Myanmar's junta.

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Myanmar and threatened to boycott regional meetings in which it participated. The United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, too, has tried, by appointing a Malaysian diplomat as a special envoy to deal with Myanmar on the issue of its human rights record and its lack of democracy. But the envoy resigned recently.

A group of Ms Suu Kyi's fellow Nobel laureates wrote a letter to the junta demanding that it free her and in 2003, the foreign ministers of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) issued a statement urging Myanmar's military rulers to free her.

All of these actions were sparked by Myanmar's poor human rights record and the 16-year-long house arrest imposed on Ms Suu Kyi since 1990, when her National League for Democracy won a landslide election victory which the regime never acknowledged.

Despite the actions taken by the international community and Asean, of which Myanmar is a member, the junta has shown no inclination to free Ms Suu Kyi or work on its promised democratic reforms. In fact, Ms Suu Kyi's house arrest term has just been extended.

To Asean's credit, though, the pressure it exerted in the past led to Myanmar giving up its scheduled turn as the chair of Asean this year. An Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus was also established last year and its aim is to "institute democracy in Myanmar" and help free Ms Suu Kyi.

And after much pressure, Myanmar allowed Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar to visit last month. But the visit was cut short, and he did not get to meet Ms Suu Kyi or make any progress on talks about the country's democratic reforms.

Nevertheless, considering Asean's founding principle of non-interference — which says that the members will not comment on or interfere with one another's domestic political affairs — the group should be lauded for its actions so far.

But for the international community, who has pushed for Ms Suu Kyi's freedom, the efforts by Asean are not good enough.

This is perhaps because of their one-sidedness. In other words, so far, everyone has criticised Myanmar for being an undemocratic regime and demanded that it free Ms Suu Kyi unconditionally.

Perhaps one needs to ask the question: What does Myanmar want in order to let her go? Is there a win-win option for the country and the parties involved? Diplomacy, after all, is not a one-way street.

But the challenge is hobbled by the fact that Asean is seen to have mixed responses on the issue of Myanmar. Reports say that there are two camps: On one side, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have spoken out on the issue. The second group — Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — has remained neutral.

Asean has to work on this in order to deal with Myanmar effectively and it should ensure that whatever solution it comes up with, should be an Asian and an Asean one, not one that is influenced by what the international community wants.

Bullying will not work. The truth is, Myanmar does not appear to give a hoot about all the sanctions and rhetoric piled against it so far by the US, the EU and Asean.

Myanmar knows that it can just keep Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest for the rest of her life and nothing will happen to the regime.

Unlike the backlash that Iran and North Korea face for their nuclear programmes, Myanmar has recently discovered a less internationally-sensitive energy source: Oil fields. Said to last for 30 years, it knows that it can use this natural resource to its advantage.

So far, Myanmar's cosying up to India, Russia and North Korea speaks volumes on whether it plans to toe the Asean line.

The writer is a journalist based in Jakarta. His writing can be read at www.thangthecolumnist.


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7:43 PM  

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