ASEAN discredited over Burma: analysts

November 23, 2007
Singapore Democrats

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The Australian
22 Nov 07
http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22803335-25837,00.html

ASEAN’s handling of the Burmese crisis has shattered the regional bloc’s credibility and deeply embarrassed Singapore, the host of this week’s southeast Asian summit, analysts and activists say.

In the run-up to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathering, Burma’s ASEAN partners – under pressure from the international community – appeared ready to press the junta to take concrete steps towards democracy.

Instead, bickering among the leaders marred the talks meant to focus on a landmark charter, and Rangoon, by blocking a special UN session on its bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in September, emerged victorious.

“In terms of the handling of it, they made a mess of it,” said Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Burma who is now a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.

“Given that people have a lot of questions in their own mind about how effective ASEAN is on political issues like this… to have made such a public gaffe doesn’t do them a lot of good.”

The annual summit that ended Wednesday was meant to be a celebration, with the 10-member bloc marking its 40th anniversary and signing its first charter aimed at turning the bloc into a more cohesive and influential force.

But with the world’s attention on Burma and how ASEAN would handle its errant member, the bloc’s apparent unity on the issue – it expressed “revulsion” at the deadly violence there two months ago – quickly crumbled.

They clashed over Singapore’s decision to invite UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari to brief leaders of ASEAN and their dialogue partners from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea on the crisis.

Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein refused to allow Mr Gambari to address the session and his ASEAN counterparts blinked, forcing Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to abide by his wishes and scrap the meeting.

“ASEAN’s continued commitment to `non-interference’ will tend to limit the capacity of member states to force others to adopt a uniform approach,” said Damien Kingsbury, an associate professor at the School of International and Political Studies at Australia’s Deakin University.

Debbie Stothard, co-ordinator of the Bangkok-based Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, called the move “particularly shocking” in the wake of the bloc’s condemnation of the junta before the UN after the crackdown.

“They’ve gone from revulsion to intimacy,” she said.

Summit host Mr Lee came under particular criticism for his handling of the Burma issue, which revealed deep divisions among ASEAN members, with The Philippines strongly criticising the regime and pressing for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“It’s a fatal sign of weakness especially when Singapore is seeking to assert itself not just on the regional stage but on the world stage as well,” said Ms Stothard.

In his defence, incoming ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand said told Mr Lee’s invitation to Mr Gambari had been made “with good intention” but “some members were not quite ready” to go ahead with the briefing.