Myanmar’s polls a headache for ASEAN

Larry Jagan
Asia Times Online

Leaders at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in the Vietnamese capital over the weekend left the meeting in a quandary. The regional grouping’s founding six members have collectively tried for over a decade to nudge Myanmar’s ruling junta towards genuine political and economic reform.

But with the first elections in 20 years scheduled for November 7, they realize that even their most modest suggestions – for example, allowing for outside election monitors – have been wholly ignored. “Myanmar is simply not complying with ASEAN at all,” said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor with the Bangkok-based Nation newspaper and a renowned ASEAN expert. “This problem continues to dog the group and will have to be tackled head-on after the elections.”

The Myanmar issue has created clear divisions within the regional bloc, with potential extreme implications for 10-member ASEAN’s relationships with key partners, including Europe and the US on one hand and China on the other. At a time when the region is moving towards greater economic integration and connectivity with the ASEAN free-trade agreement, Myanmar continues to resist efforts to deepen links with the grouping, which it formally joined in 1997.

With 25% of all seats in parliament reserved for the military and the exclusion of the main opposition National League for Democracy party, few foreign observers believe Myanmar’s elections will usher in a new era of democratic rule. At the recently concluded ASEAN summit, Myanmar proved to be more divisive than usual, despite the outward appearance of group unity.

Three distinct camps coalesced on the issue: opponents, proponents and centrists. Indonesia and the Philippines, arguably ASEAN’s most democratic members, were the most ardent critics of Myanmar’s tightly managed polls. The grouping’s new, less democratic members – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – came guardedly to Myanmar’s defense. Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, meanwhile, took a more pragmatic fence-sitting position.

“The elections are a farce,” Philippine foreign secretary Albert Romulo told Asia Times Online (ATol) in an interview 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% of the seats in the 1990 elections, being effectively barred.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen came to Myanmar’s defense at the leaders’ informal dinner, where there is always a wide-ranging and frank discussion of issues of regional concern. 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.

“It is time to move on,” Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told ATol at the end of the summit. “We must look beyond the election.” ASEAN secretary general and former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan seemed to echo that the position.

“What happens after the elections maybe more critical than the polls themselves,” said Surin in an interview at the summit’s end. “There will be opportunities, openings and new space after the elections. And more room for engagement.” Before the ASEAN summit, Surin had said “if the polls are not objectionable, they will be acceptable.”

Myanmese representatives used the summit as an international opportunity to tout the polls. “The election will be free and fair,” Myanmese foreign minister Nyan Win told ATol on the last day of the summit. He noted that he would win his seat in parliament because he was standing unopposed in his constituency in Pegu. He told reporters earlier that the election was important because it “gave people a choice.”

Consensual schism

Geopolitics were also at play at the meeting. Some diplomats believe that China now sees Myanmar and Cambodia as its main strategic allies in the region, and has in divide-and-rule fashion worked to establish a pro-Chinese cabal within ASEAN.

While it is clear that Beijing has some reservations about Myanmar, China’s rulers have taken a strategic decision to strongly support the junta and its vision for the future, in the interests of peace and stability along a shared border and pipeline projects set to run through the country to its southern regions. China has resisted calls the US has endorsed to create a UN commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity by Myanmar’s leaders.

ASEAN did collectively urge the junta to release Suu Kyi at the first informal dinner of foreign ministers last week, according to Romulo. He is one of the few ASEAN politicians to have met the charismatic pro-democracy leader, but did so more than a decade ago when he accompanied then Philippine president Fidel Ramos on an official trip to Myanmar.

“We must follow the law,” Nyan Win reportedly replied, adding that Suu Kyi is expected to be released sometime shortly after the election when her latest round of house arrest is set to expire. Romulo apparently persisted, noting that she has 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. “We have an independent judiciary,” Nyan Win apparently retorted at the closed-door dinner.

At other informal meetings, foreign ministers made their usual statements of concern. “We impressed upon the foreign minister that the whole reputation of the region was at stake, and that if the elections were not credible, both ASEAN and Myanmar’s image would be tarnished,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

Senior General Than Shwe’s future was also broached by ASEAN foreign ministers. Nyan Win told his counterparts that Than Shwe was not taking part in the elections. “That’s ludicrous,” the Philippine foreign minister told ATol. “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.”

One key issue for ASEAN countries was how to monitor the elections without seeming to interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs – a central tenet of the grouping. ASEAN leaders have pushed the regime to allow international election observers, or at least Asian eyewitnesses. Indonesia in particular has proposed allowing Asian visitors to “experience the election”.

Nyan Win explained that diplomats and UN officials based in Myanmar would be allowed to observe the polling. He said arrangements were 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.”

In a last ditch effort to find a solution, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya proposed that ASEAN Secretary General Surin be allowed to lead a small team of ASEAN observers. So far that has been greeted by the usual silence that all other previous plans received from the regime. “It is highly unlikely to be accepted by the junta,” said ASEAN expert Kavi. “They hate Surin and certainly would not welcome an ASEAN team of monitors.”

After more than a decade of grappling with the Myanmar issue, there is a palpable sense of “Myanmar fatigue” among many ASEAN members. “We have to be resilient and ‘out-patience’ them,” said Natalegawa with a laugh. Added Surin: “We certainly wish we had the Myanmar issue behind us.”

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmese politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

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