Asean leaders with 'Myanmar fatigue' can only wait and hope
Myanmar continues to be a thorn in Asean's side.
The elections there tomorrow - the first in 20 years - are posing a real headache for the regime's neighbours and friends. Disagreements about how hard to press Myanmar for human rights reforms have emerged within the organisation, with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations deferring tackling the problem in the face of Myanmese intransigence.
The organisation's concerns have been heightened by Beijing's enthusiastic support for the polls.
'We hold that to safeguard domestic stability in Myanmar and ensure a smooth election is in the fundamental interests of the people of Myanmar' and in the interests of regional prosperity, said Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing on Thursday.
For the region, the hope is that the elections will be credible at least.
The Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, said on the sidelines of the Asean summit in Hanoi last weekend: 'We impressed upon the [Myanmese] foreign minister [Major General Nyan Win] that the whole reputation of the region was at stake, and that if the elections were not credible, both Asean's and Myanmar's image would be tarnished.'
Nyan Win was left in no doubt that for the members of Asean 'there's credibility deficit as far as the elections are concerned', he said.
Nyan Win said in an interview on the last day of the summit: 'The elections will be free and fair.' The previous day he had boasted that he would win his seat, because he was standing unopposed in Bago, formerly known as Pegu.
The reason for that was that he paid the only opposition candidate registered to run against him US$50,000 to withdraw, according to a senior government official. Insiders in the capital, Naypyidaw, believe he is destined to become the Bago chief minister in the regional parliament.
Some Asean ministers were less than convinced by their Myanmese colleague's reassurances. 'The elections are a farce,' Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said between meetings at the summit. 'It certainly is not inclusive - as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has demanded - without opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to run. It is not free or fair with her party, which won more than 80 per cent of the seats in the 1990 elections, being effectively barred.'
But Cambodian premier Hun Sen reportedly came to the junta's defence during the Asean leaders' informal dinner. Hun Sen said that Myanmar should be applauded and not condemned for holding the elections, particularly while the border areas remain volatile and fighting continues with ethnic rebel groups, said a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
This must have delighted the junta's leaders who have apparently sought to shove a wedge between the members of the organisation. That may have been one of the key reasons for leader Senior General Than Shwe's recent visit to Laos, just ahead of the regional summit in Hanoi.
Some believe the Cambodian leaders have been influenced by China, which fully supports the junta and has effectively endorsed the elections before they have taken place.
'It's a fait accompoli,' Thailand's government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said at the end of the three-day summit in the Vietnamese capital last weekend. 'It is time to move on and look beyond the actual elections,' he said.
It is a position that is strongly endorsed by the organisation's secretary general. 'What happens after the elections maybe more critical than the polls themselves,' said Surin Pitsuwan. 'There will be opportunities, openings and new space after the polls ... and more room for engagement,' he said in an interview at the end of the summit.
For the Philippines in particular though, this seems unlikely. Romulo took issue with the fact that Than Shwe would not be taking part in the elections, as Nyan Win told his counterparts last week.
'This is ludicrous,' said the Philippines' foreign minister in an interview between meetings. 'We expect him to continue to play an important role in the future. Even if he is not an MP, in the end he will be elected to one of the highest positions, if not the presidency.'
All Asean countries urged the junta to release Suu Kyi, at the first informal dinner of foreign ministers earlier last week, said Romulo (who is one of the few Asian politicians to have met the pro-democracy leader, more than a decade ago when he joined the then-Philippine president, Fidel Ramos, on a trip to Yangon).
'We must follow the law,' Nyan Win reportedly replied and added that Suu Kyi was expected to be released shortly after the election. Romulo apparently persisted and fumed that she had been 'jailed' on trumped up charges - one after another - for more than 12 years.
'What guarantees are there this won't happen again after she is released?' he asked. Insiders said Nyan Win retorted: 'We have an independent judiciary.'
Asean has been particularly concerned to find ways to monitor the elections, without seeming to interfere. Some Asean leaders have been urging the regime to allow international observers, especially Indonesia, into the country. All this year Indonesia's foreign minister has been pushing the junta to allow Asian 'visitors to experience the elections', with no success. After months of silence from the Myanmese, Natalegawa said he was now 'less optimistic than before'.
Nyan Win told his fellow foreign ministers during the Asean summit that diplomats and UN officials based in Myanmar would be allowed to observe the polling. Arrangements are being made for them to visit some 46 polling stations.
'This is laughable,' Romulo said. 'There are more than 46,000 polling stations and only an absurdly small fraction of them would be covered by this proposal.'
After a decade of trying to grapple with the issue, it is clear that there is a growing 'Myanmar fatigue' within Asean: it is clear on the faces of all the leaders when the subject is broached.
'We have to be resilient and out-patience them,' Natalegawa said. Surin agreed: 'We certainly wish we had the Myanmar issue behind us.'
Few believe things will change dramatically after the elections, but there are still some who hope.
Romulo said: 'Like in the Philippines, with People Power, sometime in the future the people will wake up. It's up to the forces of democracy inside the country to make the junta accept the rule of the people.'