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Neighbours offer Chuan a challenge

Bangkok Post Perspective (23 November 1997)

Neighbours offer Chuan a challenge 
Prior to leaving for the Apec forum, Thailand's new government promised
to take a stronger stance against Burma's military regime. In Vancouver,
a meeting between the foreign ministers of Thailand, Indonesia and The
Philippines and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will address the
political crisis in Cambodia. 

Hundreds of human rights groups have mounted a counter-summit on the
sidelines of the Asian-Pacific Economic Forum in Vancouver to highlight
abuses throughout the larger region. Their message is clear: Apec is not
a "strictly business" affair. Human rights issues cannot be separated
from economics. Enter Chuan Leekpai, Southeast Asia's newest Prime
Minister, who inherits a host of burdens, not just at home, but in
forming a coherent policy to deal with unruly neighbours Cambodia and
Burma. The possible postponement of Cambodia's upcoming elections and
Burma's continued suppression of its opposition have cast a pall over the
region as thick as the Indonesian haze.

Prime Minister Chuan will certainly feel the pressure to assure Pacific
Rim leaders, especially those in the West, that Southeast Asia as region
will persist in its committment to democracy and human rights.

He may be tempted to dodge such issues.

The Asian economic crunch, the same crisis that brought Mr Chuan to
power, will dominate the forum. And, afterall, it is a less-secure
Thailand and, indeed, a different Southeast Asia since he last led the
country at the 1994 Apec forum in Seattle. 

But to dodge these issues would be unwise. As long as Burma and Cambodia
persist as shining examples of unjust governance, the region will suffer.

Burma's embarrassing feud with European Union, and Thailand's feeble
attempts to mediate, rubbed fresh salt in old wounds. And, of the course,
Asean's spotty attempts at policy during the Cambodian political crisis
have only made matters worse.

These two high-handed regimes are undermining Asean's bargaining power in
the geopolitical arena. The region's credibility is at stake. 

Vancouver, however, would be a perfect starting point at which to stop
the slide.

In the past few days there have been glimmers of hope. Burma's State Law
and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) was recently reshaped, supposedly
to weed out corrupt ministers, and renamed the State Peace and
Development Council (SPDC). Sceptics abound, but through tough
negotiation the country's military leaders could be enticed to turn over
a new leaf.

Cambodia's invitation to an "advance party" of exiled politicians may
help speed up preparations for elections, scheduled for May next year.

At the very least, Mr Chuan, the man who was singled out by US President
Bill Clinton as personal favourite, can smooth some feathers in
Vancouver. That much is expected. But the Prime Minister can certainly do

An inspired Mr Chuan, riding the strength of a people's constitution,
would have the power to set regional policy in motion. That policy must
be one that insists upon free and fair elections in Cambodia, no matter
what toes are trod upon in Asean's Old Boy network. Until that happens,
strongman Hun Sen will continue to smear the principles of democracy
while making a mockery of Asean's attempts to right itself.

The same goes for Burma. Deputy Foreign Minister M.R. Sukhumphand
Paribatra vowed last week that the Chuan government intents to pursue
"constructive engagement" between the Thai and Burmese people, rather
than just between military officials and businessmen. In following, the
Chuan government is obligated to embrace the Burmese peoples' choice of
leaders and engage the winner of the last democratic elections, Aung San
Suu Kyi.

Until these conditions are met, and until these wayward neighbours can be
brought into line with values that Mr Chuan champions, Thailand will feel
the bite on its own democratic system as it gnawed from two ends.