Why Asean failed to stand up to the bully in its ranks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am

Membership, it seems, does have its privileges. Myanmar was able to appeal to Asean's most cherished motives of cohesion and non-interference to pull off a considerable diplomatic coup this week despite the pressures on the ruling military junta after a crackdown on protests in September.

Its new Prime Minister, General Thein Sein, was one of the last Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) leaders to arrive for the annual leaders' summit. But within hours he had seen off a grilling over the junta's slow pace of reform and reconciliation and thwarted a scheduled briefing from a UN special envoy on the situation in his country. UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari was already en route, invited by host Singapore to brief the 10 Asean nations as well as their partners in the East Asian Summit - China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Singapore has now offered to arrange side meetings for any nation wanting to see Mr Gambari about his recent visits to Myanmar to meet both the junta and detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

'Prime Minister Thein Sein made clear that the situation in Myanmar was a domestic ... affair and that Myanmar was fully capable of handling the situation by itself,' the summit statement read out yesterday by chairman and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

The statement nonetheless urged the junta to release Ms Suu Kyi and other political detainees, revert to democracy and work with the UN and Mr Gambari. Gasps were audible as Asean envoys and insiders privately digested the announcement that followed a drawn-out crisis dinner on Monday night, fearing hard-won credibility was at risk.

'This event was supposed to be about a bold new era for Asean on its 40th anniversary, a future of closer, deeper integration,' one dejected Thai diplomat said. 'Myanmar has turned the lights off at the party.' Other envoys spoke of a feeling of impotence and frustration.

The traditions of consensus and non-interference have been stretched by the recalcitrant junta in Myanmar but that flexibility can only go so far. General Thein strongly rejected an unprecedented briefing to his own organisation by an outsider, leaving Asean leaders in a bind.

The concept of non-interference has undoubtedly helped Asean point to the fact that its 40 years have been marked by relative peace and stability among a politically and culturally diverse membership. Yet for some, this was the moment to draw a line in the sand over future acceptable behaviour from a regime that has treated Asean with contempt.

'Certainly, this is a victory for Myanmar,' said Hiro Katsumata from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. 'What is lost is the reputation of the association.'

For some members of Asean, of course, non-interference is a core part of the attraction. Other newer members Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are all proud of their sovereignty and would take a dim view of anything seen as meddling.

The move has also exposed some diplomatic splits as to the best approach. Asean diplomats said Premier Wen Jiabao used his prominence at the summit to back General Thein Sein's concerns, even as he has expressed Beijing's hopes for stability in its neighbour.

Mr Wen did not plan to meet Mr Gambari, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

The US, meanwhile, expressed deep concerns. Hours before the dinner, senior US officials warned that future trade pacts between Asean and the US could be at risk due to the involvement of Myanmar.