Monday, June 16, 2003

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Same story, different worlds

As worldwide pressure grows on the Burmese junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi, media reaction has differed on Colin Powell's rhetorically tough approach. Here's the International Herald-Tribune:

The Southeast Asian neighbors of Burma broke with precedent Monday to chastise it publicly for its crackdown on dissent and detention of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Their criticism, at a regional forum in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, significantly increased pressure on the ruling generals, adding to growing condemnation around the world....

The association has in the past held back from criticizing Burma, because of a long-standing policy of what they call interference in each other's affairs. But analysts said their continuing silence now as the world rallies against Burma had become embarrassing and risked making them appear ineffectual. "We in ASEAN are now sharing in accountability to the world about the slow progress of the transition to democracy in Myanmar," said the Philippine foreign secretary, Blas Ople.

In this version of events, the West has shamed the East into action.

Now, consider this Bangkok Post version of events:

Burma has long been a major cause of tension between the United States and Asia. Now US Secretary of State Colin Powell has virtually declared war on Asia, with his statement published in the Asian Wall Street Journal last week demanding that the countries of Asia join the US in putting pressure on Burma's junta to free Suu Kyi and introduce democratic reform.

"The thugs who now rule Burma must understand that their failure to restore democracy will only bring more and more pressure against them and their supporters,'' Mr Powell concluded in his statement.

But this hard-line message is unlikely to have much impact -- either on Rangoon or on the generals who head the regime. In fact, it is almost certain to be counter-productive. ``The US secretary of state's blast to Asia has clearly upset many of the leaders in the region, who already had misgivings about Washington's bullying approach to the region in the past,'' said a senior western diplomat in Southeast Asia who did not wish to be identified....

Southeast Asian leaders have discussed Burma in the past. A couple of years ago, Goh Chok Tong, the Singaporean prime minister, while hosting the annual Asean summit, initiated a private huddle of leaders which is believed to have been instrumental in convincing Burma's top general, Than Shwe, to start a dialogue with Suu Kyi and accept the UN envoy Razali Ismail as the facilitator....

There have been growing signs from many Asean governments over the past two weeks that the policy of non-interference would not prevent Burma from being discussed. Both Cambodia and Thailand's foreign ministers have alluded to the fact that the situation in Burma is an international issue and that the non-intervention policy was evolving and some internal issues needed to be addressed even in the face of strong objections from some member countries.

"The result of these discussions will not be made public,'' a senior Asian diplomat in Phnom Penh for the meetings said. "There is no way Asean can publicly criticise one of its members, but that doesn't mean there would not be substantial pressure brought to bear on Rangoon privately.''

The United States, largely supported by Europe, has been continually at odds with Asia, particularly the countries of Southeast Asia, over how best to encourage Burma's ruling generals to introduce economic and political change.

"The Asean and Asian approach to Burma emphasises constructive engagement -- not destructive isolation,'' a senior Asian diplomat in Bangkok said.

A Rangoon-based Asian diplomat added: "There is no way that Asia, including Japan and China, could support an international economic boycott of Burma. And no amount of US pressure will change that.''

Who's right? One is tempted to dismiss the Post version of events, since it includes a passsage in which Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia's president, is chagrined at the thought of the Burmese junta taking over the ASEAN presidency in 2006. Mahathir's own actions suggest he is hardly the most democratic of leaders. Furthermore, the "quiet diplomacy" argument has the advantage of nonfalsifiability.

And yet, there is a difference between someone like Mahathir, who has some respect for the rule of law, and the thugs of Burma. And the Post is correct in observing that rhetorical pressure is unlikely to have any effect, and that economic sanctions will not work unless China actively participates, which is highly unlikely.

In the end, however, the most significant fact in this story is not the immediate effect on Burma, but the effect on ASEAN. The organization recognizes that its non-intervention policy needs to evolve, in part due to Western pressure. Its members are either actual democracies -- Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines -- or are rhetorically committed to democracy -- Signapore, Malaysia, Cambodia. Furthermore, local crises, such as the 1997-98 financial panic or the SARS outbreak, generally force greater regional openness.

I don't hold out much hope for a democratic Burma anytime soon. An ASEAN that recognizes the value of democracy, however, is an intriguing possibility.


posted by Dan on 06.16.03 at 11:44 PM