Asean double talk

Amando Doronila
06 Oct 07

When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) expressed “revulsion” at the brutal crackdown of protesters calling for the end of Burma’s military dictatorship, the statement was hailed as the strongest condemnation yet by Asean of the repressive Burmese junta.

It was also a disgusting manifestation of Asean’s prevarication and double talk on Burma, and a revelation that Asean is the weakest regional bloc of nations with hardly any influence at all to bring pressure on the Burmese generals to negotiate reconciliation with the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The statement, issued after the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, urged the junta “to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution” to the crisis. The statement said the ministers “were appalled” by reports that automatic weapons were being used to fire at the protesters in Rangoon and demanded that the government “immediately desist from the use of violence.”

In the statement issued by Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo, the ministers called for the release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi. Singapore is now chair of Asean.

To show how the junta regards Asean as no more than a nuisance, the slaughter continued unabated for days, with at least 10 more people being killed (more than a hundred according to human rights groups). More than a thousand monks have been seized in their pagodas and detained in concentration centers outside Rangoon since last week’s massacre.

The Burmese massacre has confronted Asean with its worst crisis of credibility as a regional organization that can be taken seriously in its aspirations to be a significant political and economic entity since its founding 40 years ago.

Singapore, as chair for the rest of 2007, speaks on behalf of the 10 Asean members, but its chairmanship and the position it pronounces in this crisis underline Asean’s prevarication on the case of Burma.

No less disgusting than Asean’s righteous condemnation was that of the President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who took a moral high ground in a speech at the Assembly. She said, “This is the time for Burma to return to the path of democracy and to release Aung San Suu Kyi and to involve all parties … in the democratization and the constitutional process.” Without being embarrassed, she held up the Philippines as “the most democratic country” in our region. “We have no tolerance for human rights violations at home and abroad,” she said.

These pronouncements from the more articulate Asean leaders could only have served to increase the scorn of Gen. Than Shwe’s cabal for Asean as a toothless creature.

When Ibrahim Gambari, the UN’s special envoy who had an urgent mission to end the crackdown, left Burma after four days of talks with the junta and Suu Kyi, he said he had delivered a “strong message” to the junta. But UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he could not call the mission a “success.”

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong published “an unusually severe” letter, which “strongly urged” General Shwe to “work with Mr. Gambari to try to find a way forward,” saying that the conflict in Burma “will have serious implications not only for itself (Burma) but also for Asean and the whole region.” Apparently, the junta did not listen to this appeal.

But Singapore’s dilemma, as well as Asean’s hypocrisy, was underlined by Singapore’s extensive economic relations with Burma, which have thrown an economic lifeline to the junta to blunt economic and political sanctions from the United States and the European Union, among others. Without referring to the economic relations between Burma and key players, such as China, Japan, India and Russia, Singapore’s ties with Burma are cited in the context of Asean’s weak influence in effecting political change in Burma.

Andrew Selth, a research fellow at Queensland’s Griffith University, has written in Jane’s Intelligence Review that with an estimated $2.65 billion at stake in Burma, Singapore companies “have been some of the biggest investors in Burma’s military junta.” Selth said that Singapore “has sent the junta guns, rockets, armored personnel carriers and grenade launchers.” Singapore companies have also provided computers and networking equipment for Burma’s defense ministry and army, “while upgrading the bunkered junta’s ability to network with regional commanders.”

A former assistant secretary of state for the US Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Robert Gelhard, has said half of Singapore’s investment in Burma has “been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han.”

Singapore is hosting Asean’s annual meeting in November, when the organization is scheduled to approve its first charter designed to make it a more effective rules-based organization. The charter was drafted in Manila this year, and was hailed as a “victory for human rights,” but due to the Asean concept of making decisions by consensus, the draft fudged provisions for sanctions to discipline member states violating human rights.

The Burmese crackdown pushes Asean to a moment of decision on the issue of transforming it into a rules-based organization with disciplinary and binding authority. This will test whether Asean members with economic interests in Burma, including Singapore and Thailand, can summon the political will to bring Burma into line with the draft’s objectives. The showdown in Singapore in November could break up Asean’s project of political integration or result in Burma’s expulsion. The second outcome appears remote.

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