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FEER: Lightning Rod

As Burma draws fire, all of ASEAN gets burned
By Bertil Lintner in Bangkok
November 12, 1998

When Europe turns up the voltage on human rights, Burma is usually the
first to get zapped. No one lese was hurt when Rangoon was an isolated
pariah state, but now its newfound Asean partners are feeling the jolt.
That was evident in late October when the European Union voted to tighten
sanctions against Burma.

The junta in Rangoon is increasingly becoming a problem for the Association
of South East Asian Nations, whose members are split publicly over whether
or not they should criticize Burma's internal politics. Diplomats predict
that the nation's right record is likely to cause friction between Asean
and the West at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Kuala
Lumpur in mid-November.

That's not what Rangoon- or Asean - expected when Burma was admitted to the
nine-nation group in July last year. "Burma thought that Asean would serve
as a shield to ward off foreign criticism," says Josef Silverstein,
professor emeritus of political science and a Burma scholar at Rutgers
University in New Jersey. The problem s that the rest of Asean feels it has
to pressure the generals in Rangoon into mending their ways, so as not to
jeopardize ties with the EU. "Asean has provided no shield for Burma, no
protection, not even a fig leaf," says Silversrein.

Burma has forced Asean to rethink its traditional policy of noninterference
in the internal affairs of its member states. Thailand and some other Asean
members are concerned that Burma's stigma is tainting the whole group at a
crucial time when sound relations with the EU are of utmost importance.
"Asean's international clout has diminished since Asia's financial crisis
began, and it can no longer ask the EU to deal with them solely on their
own terms," says a Rangoon-based Asian diplomat.

The Thailand and the Philippines have been more vocal in their calls for a
dialogue between the ruling State Peace and Development Council and
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy.

Even Malaysia leader Mahathir Mohamad told his hosts during an official
visit to Burma in March that "you have to understand the Europe is very
important to us." That Mahathir would say this was seen as especially
significant- given that he had been instrumental in bringing Burma into
Asean at its 30h-anniversary summit in Kuala Lumpur last year.

But will the generals in the junta give in to unexpected pressure from
Burma's new Asean partners? That depends on who is calling the shots in
Rangoon. According to the Asian diplomat, not everyone in the Burmese
leadership favored joining Asean. Army chief Gen. Maung Aye was sceptical
while intelligence boss Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt argued that Burma needed more
allies in the region. Economic sanctions from the EU and Asean diplomatic
pressure is likely to accentuate the tension between the two generals.

Maneuvering is already evident. To strengthen his position, Khin Nyunt has
set up political-affairs committee attached to the SPDC. He is chairman of
the 16-member body, which also includes several officers from another
think-tank he heads; the Office of Strategic Studies.

In late October, the OSS initiated a regional symposium in Rangoon to
discuss development in the region. The Information and Resources Centre of
Singapore and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation of Japan co-sponsored the
event; delegates from Malaysia and Singapore presented papers. "It's
obvious that Khin Nyunt is doing everything he can to forward his vision of
Burma's future by using his regional contacts," adds the diplomat.

But the Maung Aye-Khin Nyunt rivalry begs another question: Is there really
any political difference between them? Would either of them be prepared to
reform Burma's political system in a way that would satisfy Asean and the
EU? No, says a Rangoon-based Western diplomat. "Both of them want the
military to remain in absolute control," he adds. "Khin Nyunt believes that
Asean membership, and close links with China, will strengthen the SPDC's
regional position and gain it some international credibility. Maung Aye is
a straightforward army man and has little or no regard for what the rest of
the world says."

Burma's foreign minister, Ohn Gyaw, under scored that position in his
speech before the United Nations General Assembly in March. He said the
world, including the UN, had "no right to interfere" in his country's
"internal affairs." The public expression of that attitude may have been a
watershed for the EU.

Both Asean and the EU are clearly running out of patience with the Burmese
generals. In mid-October, Rangoon-based diplomats from the EU, the United
States, Australia, Japan and the Philippines met in London to map out a
common strategy for dealing with the stand-of between the SPDC and Suu Kyi.
The tightening of sanctions, at an EU meeting in Luxembourg, followed on
October 27.

But will economic pressure and backroom diplomacy during the upcoming Apec
meeting have any impact? Says the Asian diplomat: "Nothing more than
cosmetic changes can be expected until and unless a reformer emerges from
within the ranks of the military." Neither Khin Nyunt nor Maung Aye fits
that description.

Burma Info