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Potential conflict looms over Burma
October 7, 1997
ANALYSIS / ASEAN-EU MEETING
Potential conflict looms over Burma differences
Asean and the European Union will meet next month for the first time since
Burma was admitted as an Asean member. The EU does not want Rangoon to attend
the meeting, which is sure to discuss its human rights issue.
NUSSARA SAWATSAWANG and SARITDET MARUKATAT
Burma's poor record on human rights and democracy is expected to make Thailand
the unwilling host of a major battle between the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations and the European Union next month.
As host of the November 17-19 meeting of the Asean-EU Joint Cooperation
Committee, Thailand is expected to push for the inclusion of Burma and Laos
under the agreement that has formed the basis for cooperation between the two
groupings since 1980.
Burma and Laos were admitted to Asean in July, two years after Vietnam was
brought into the fold. EU officials have made clear that they have no
objections to allowing Laos to follow Vietnam into the Asean-EU Cooperation
Agreement, which offers a number of trade and training benefits, but Burma is
an entirely different matter.
"In [the] case of Laos, there's no problem from the EU, but for Burma, the
(European) Commission would give negative opinion of opening relations to the
Council of Ministers," said Gwyn Morgan, head of the Commission's Southeast
Asian Unit, in a recent interview in Brussels.
Another high-level EC official said: "We hope Asean won't send the request
because we have to say yes for Laos and say no for Burma."
EU officials don't even want to see Burmese delegates join the meeting next
month. If Thailand insists on inviting them as observers, the atmosphere will
change as Burma will be a target of criticism, they said.
The meeting should be reserved for countries stated in the agreement,
emphasised one EU official.
These include the seven Asean member states - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the
Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - and the 15 member states of the
EU - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland,
Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United
The inclusion of any new Asean party under the agreement requires this party
to sign a protocol with the EU member states.
Under complicated EU procedures, the Council of Ministers mandates the
European Commission to negotiate with a new party to the agreement after it
has approved the proposed addition by Asean. The commission then returns the
work to the council for approval before sending it to the European Parliament
For Burma, every step looks unfriendly because opposition to the ruling State
Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) in Rangoon runs high among members
of the European Parliament.
Glyn Ford, a British member of the European Parliament, said the house's
position on association with Burma in any field is "absolutely clear".
"If it were to debate [the question] this week, the parliament would say no,"
said Eamonn Noonan, an Irish member and strong human rights advocate.
Although Asean remains firm and believes in engagement with Burma as a means
of bringing about improvements in that country, the EU has suspended trade
privileges to Burma under the Generalised System of Preferences since early
this year and banned visas for Slorc members.
Mr Morgan argued that Asean's policy would work only if it decided to
intervene in Burmese affairs, as it was doing with Cambodia by putting its
Asean membership on hold after the coup on July 5.
"But now that Burma is a member, now it's Asean's decision against our
opinion," said Mr Morgan, a former head of the European Commission mission in
Bangkok. "If Asean took in Burma, Asean [should have] shown the progress."
EU officials say Burma's human rights record has not improved since it joined
Asean three months ago. Some officials maintain that there is no other way of
dealing with this problem except by continuing to exclude Burma from Asean-EU
But Mr Ford, a prominent advocate of sanctions against Rangoon who met
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon last December, said "pragmatic
ways" such as dispatching Asean and European parliamentarians to hold talks
with Slorc could work.
He also expressed the belief that relations between the EU and Asean would
continue. "If they don't, we both make mistakes," he said.
The Burma issue is probably the main thorn in the side of Asean-EU relations
although the problem of East Timor - which pits Indonesia against Portugal -
has lingered longer, since Indonesia's annexing of the territory in 1975.
Otherwise, environmental and social issues occasionally have also tested
Asean-EU relations, said Rita Bauter, an analyst who monitors European ties
with Asean at the European Institute for Public Administration in Maastricht,
Nonetheless, the two groupings cannot afford to let the confrontation over
Burma jeopardise the future of their lucrative trade ties, she contended.