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asian wall st. journal editorial

Asian Wall Street Journal, October 24, 1996
Comment by Mike Jendrzejczyk and Zunetta Liddell

"Constructive engagement" Can Work in Burma

As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prepares to
discuss Burma's bid for membership in late November, there is
a growing realization that the region's governments must play
a key role in promoting basic human rights and lasting
stability of their troubled neighbor.  The Asean states could
help break the current deadlock in Burma by breathing new life
into their policy of "constructive engagement."  
          Burma's rulers, the generals of the State Law and
Order Restoration Council are gradually tightening the noose
around the opposition National League for Democracy, detaining
over 1,000 people this past May and September and handing out
jail terms to key pro-democracy activists. The army erected
barricades again on University Avenue last weekend, and it
appears to be on the verge of outlawing the NLD and
marginalizing its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.  But it is
unlikely that her popularity and Burmese aspirations for
democratic and human rights can be squashed without further
bloodshed and instability.
          Should the generals suppress the forces of
democracy, however, it will not only be the 
people of Burma who will lose out.  The governments of Asean
will also suffer a serious loss of prestige and regional
authority, as they inherit the blame for not averting a human
and political catastrophe on the grounds of "non-interference"
in the internal affairs of another country.
         Asean could play a crucial role in persuading the
Slorc to undertake concrete changes, while offering economic
and political support along the way. And it could do so on its
own terms, under its own time-table, but acting within the
framework of unanimous United Nations resolutions on Burma.
The UN General Assembly is expected to pass another
such resolution in the next couple of months.
         Asean is considering welcoming Burma as a full member
of the association in 1997 mainly for strategic reasons, to
offset China's growing dominance in Burma. Beijing has sold
military hardware worth $1.2 billion since 1992, including
naval warships, and Asean is deeply concerned about China's
actions in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. China's
dominance of the Burmese economy is perhaps an even greater
concern.  There are no accurate estimates of the amount of
cross-border trade between China and Burma, much of which is
unofficial. This trade flow is complimented by generous grants
and cooperation agreements from Beijing to build roads and
bridges that improve China's access to southern Burma. 
             But Asean governments come in a close second as
Rangoon's top economic partners, with Singapore the leading
investor.  As activists groups discourage large-scale Western
investment - except, perhaps, in the oil sector - Asean's
share of the market is likely to increase or remain steady. It
is equally unlikely that Slorc will allow unlimited Chinese
investment in the face of popular discontent and unease within
the military over the extent of Beijing's influence.  All
sides may be overplaying the China card - in which case ASEAN
should not feel pressured into expediting Burma's membership. 
             In recent years Asean has acquired a strong
self-image based on its economic performance and its rejection
of dictates from the West -- especially on human rights. In
fact, the Slorc has alluded to this in seeking to boost its
own image and legitimacy.  Burma's
finance minister, Brigadier General Win Tin, boasted at the
World Bank's  annual
meeting recently: "Our good economic performance has been made
possible by the
prevalence of law and order.  This in turn has earned us wide
acceptance of our neighbors and trading countries as worthy
partners...In fact, the ASEAN nations have welcomed us and
granted us observer status."
     Yet even on human rights, there are divisions among the
members of Asean in their attitudes toward Burma.  Some
officials in Thailand and the Philippines are unwilling to
lower human rights standards within the region in order to
accommodate a country widely viewed as a pariah state due to
its abysmal human rights record. In addition, Thailand, though
beset with political difficulties itself, is reluctant to see
its belligerent neighbor become a member without some
attention to international norms. Since May, when the
Philippine government refused to condemn the arrests of NLD
supporters, lobbying by opposition groups and nongovernmental
organizations within the Philippines seems to have compelled
Manila to rethink its position on Burma. 
     Malaysia will have a decisive voice on Burma's
membership, as the chair of the annual ministerial conference
next year, and  Prime Minister Mahatir has declared his
intention to admit Rangoon. But Malaysia's deputy prime
minister, Datuk Ibrahim, declared in a speech last August that
"democracy is not a luxury that Asians cannot afford, as some
would have us believe."  And a recent editorial in The Straits
Times warned that "constructive engagement" was never meant to
be "an infinite process" or to give "carte blanche for the
generals to perpetuate their hold on power without reference
to the people." 
     Under the cover of its need for consensus, Asean could
decide to balance the push from President Ramos of the
Philippines to "reassess" constructive engagement, against the
pro-Burma faction lead by Singapore and Indonesia. It could
strike a middle ground and decide to put off Burma's
membership for at least one year, that is until 1998, "on
technical grounds." In the meantime, it could exert quiet, but
firm and consistent pressure on Burma
to restore stability and basic human rights.
     Such a policy could be adopted not in response to Western
demands, but in order to protect the interests of ASEAN's
existing members.  And for Burma's closest neighbors, those
interests go beyond the issue of loss of prestige in the event
of a catastrophe. Thailand has borne the brunt of the SLORC's
brutality and economic mismanagement, enduring a series of
incursions by the Burmese military, plus a flood of 90,000
refugees and over one million migrant laborers.  Thus it was
not surprising that Bangkok supported Manila's call to
reconsider Asean's engagement approach.
     Asean has shown that it can exert its influence on behalf
of human rights in Burma if it so chooses.  During Burmese
premier Than Shwe's first visit to Singapore in June 1995, Goh
Chok Tong declared bluntly that "besides a conducive economic
environment, political stability and reconciliation are
necessary for encouraging trade, investments, and tourism." 
One month later, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from six
years of house arrest, and
Burma was invited to Bangkok to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity
and Cooperation -- a first step towards its official
integration. It seems doubtful that SLORC would have been
allowed to sign the treaty if the NLD leader had not been
released; her freedom may even have been
an explicit pre-condition. 
     The White House is now considering imposing a ban on all
new U.S. private investment in Burma, as called for in
legislation enacted by Congress last month with the Clinton
Administration's support.  In addition, the European Union is
considering a timetable for the possible withdrawal of
preferential import tariffs due to the massive use of forced
labor in Burma, and other possible sanctions.  If 
"constructive engagement" is to have any
credibility - even among Asean's own members - as an
alternative to sanctions, Asean should undertake an intense,
ongoing diplomatic initiative, urging Rangoon to take steps to
begin defusing the confrontation with the NLD and the
international community, such as:
     -- Release of all detained NLD activists and members of
parliament and
agreement with international humanitarian agencies on prison
     -- Reversal of the decision to effectively close all NLD
offices and instead offer a commitment to allow the NLD to
meet freely and to refrain from security roundups every time
Aung San Suu Kyi convenes a meeting;
     -- Issuing a welcome to the U.N. Secretary General's
representative to come to Burma promptly to facilitate
dialogue, as called for by U.N. resolutions;
     -- Verifiable efforts to end forced labor, which could
result in a deferment of EU sanctions and further censure by
the International Labor Organization.
     None of these measures would lead to the immediate
downfall of SLORC and the country's disintegration, as the
Burmese generals might claim. Rather, they would be first
steps toward a lasting solution to Burma's long-term political
instability by encouraging dialogue with the opposition. By
pressing for these changes, the governments of ASEAN might
help end the current human rights disaster in Burma, while
upholding the group's integrity and international standing.

Mr. Jendrzejczyk is the Washington director of Human Rights
Watch/Asia and Ms. Liddell is a research associate in the
London office.