By Kornelius Purba
The Jakarta Post / Asia News Network
4 August 2003
A euphoric tide of democratization has swept through some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in recent years, especially founding members Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
ASEAN has also experienced a steady recovery in its once lowly international stature. But, just when things seemed to be improving, enter the brutality of Myanmar’s military junta against world democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, something that has proved to be a major thorn in the side of the regional grouping.
In a surprise move in June, ASEAN abandoned its much criticized non-interference credo when its foreign ministers during their annual meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, harshly rebuked the Myanmar military regime and demanded the quick release of Suu Kyi.
The spirit of concern for Suu Kyi has even infected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was once angered by then Indonesian President B.J. Habibie when the latter expressed sympathy for jailed former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, his long-time friend.
Even Singapore, famous for its sophisticated legal moves to impoverish antigovernment leaders like Joshua J.B. Jeyaratnam and Singapore’s Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan, also strongly urged Yangon to free Suu Kyi.
After being in limbo for the four years since the economic crisis hit Asia in 1997, ASEAN has been able to regain some of its international prowess, ironically thanks to the Sept. 11 tragedy and the Bali bombings in October last year. The two tragedies’ impact has provided impetus for stronger unity in the regional grouping. Western countries have once again realized the region’s strategic value on economics and global security.
ASEAN’s partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC), and Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and Asian economic giants China, Japan and South Korea, are being lured back to seek out lucrative regional business opportunities.
When industrialized countries and wealthy investors meet with ASEAN, of course both parties want to concentrate on business interests, and they want to get rid of all possible stumbling blocks to negotiations. So, when Myanmar remains under the iron fist of a military junta and continues to mistreat the 1990 Nobel Prize laureate, Myanmar’s presence at the negotiating table becomes a serious liability to ASEAN.
People in the region are now more conscious of democratic values, including the significance of having elected leaders. Indonesians, Thais and Filipinos show more concern now over a repressive regime in their midst. To a certain extent, they might also be ready to demand that their governments stop pretending not to know that Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), overwhelmingly won the military-controlled general elections in 1989.
Myanmar’s neighbors can no longer accept the non-interference argument because the military abuses against Suu Kyi have directly affected their own well-being. Like in any neighborhood, neighbors will have to take action if they continue to witness domestic violence in a neighboring home. They have to act to stop such domestic cruelty.
Indonesia, as the current ASEAN chairman, is supposed to lead the group in its mission to address the source of diplomatic disruptions: The political chaos in Myanmar.
In February 1997, it was Suharto who directed ASEAN’s final judgment on the bids of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia to join the group. At that time Indonesia strongly believed that the incorporation of Myanmar into ASEAN would be productive for the region.
This was the time when Suharto was at the peak of his power, after cracking down hard on Megawati Sukarnoputri in 1996. Clearly he had no interest in defending Suu Kyi. Myanmar’s generals were proud to learn from him how to rule their country with an iron fist.
It is only natural that Suu Kyi should have more hope now that Megawati is at the helm, especially because they have similar family backgrounds. Megawati’s father, Sukarno, and Su Kyi’s father, Aung San, were the founding fathers of Indonesia and Myanmar respectively.
But what has happened? The current government’s attitude to the issue is a virtual carbon copy of Suharto’s attitude to Myanmar. That is the reason why visiting Myanmar foreign minister Win Aung presented a small but seemingly pleasant gift to his host Indonesia, which is hungry for international recognition in the diplomatic arena.
Indonesia can now only nostalgically look back on its diplomatic triumphs of the past, when it helped settle the conflicts in Cambodia, and in the Southern Philippines, at least for a while. Today, the optimum result of what it could accomplish is reflected in the statement of foreign minister Hassan Wirayuda yesterday: “We have received a guarantee that the Aung San Suu Kyi case will be over before the ASEAN summit (in October in Bali).”
Myanmar’s military regime was clearly delighted with President Megawati’s lenient, if not permissive, approach to the brutality of Myanmar’s military junta against Myanmar’s democratically elected leader.
After being harshly warned by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad that Myanmar could be ousted from ASEAN for Suu Kyi’s detention, the ruling Myanmar generals can now smile broadly as they have been able to appease Indonesia with only a small concession.
It will be very embarrassing for Megawati if the 58-year-old Suu Kyi is still detained during the October summit when the 10 ASEAN leaders will also receive the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea.
But is her release enough? She can easily be arrested again after the summit. It is essential for ASEAN to convince the generals in Myanmar that it is firstly in their own interests to give Suu Kyi the opportunity to lead the country as the winner of the 1989 elections.
It would then be no less pressing for ASEAN to convince Suu Kyi that it would be in the interests of her country, and the stability of her government, to give concessions to the generals. Can Megawati do it? Can Minister Hassan convince his own boss that it is now the time to act.
SDP’s Note: Dr Chee Soon Juan had attended a conference organised by Mr Kim Dae Jung, then in the opposition, to focus on strategies to bring Burma to join the international community of democracies. Ms Megawati Sukaroputri and Mr Abdurrhaman Wahid (Indonesia’s former president) were also in attendance. This was during the years when Suharto was still president of Indonesia. Both had expressed a desire to see Burma and Southeast Asia in general embrace and practice democracy.