Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

ASEAN Stands Up to Burma?

Thein Sein has had a tough start to the presidency in Burma. But denying Burma the ASEAN chair would have to be only the start of increased pressure.

By Baroness Glenys Kinnock for

Burma’s hard-line new dictator, President Thein Sein, has suffered a series of setbacks in his attempts to persuade the international community that there has been real change in Burma.

First the United States and Canada ruled out relaxing their economic sanctions, saying they wanted to see substantive change first. Then the EU followed suit, maintaining its economic sanctions, and only temporarily relaxing diplomatic sanctions on a small number of government officials.

These setbacks alone would have been disappointing for Thein Sein—as someone in the top circle of the dictatorship for 14 years, he was one of the architects of the new Constitution, which was designed in part to persuade the international community to relax pressure against the regime.

But now he has received another blow, one that will hurt even more because it was dealt to him by a friend. Association of Southeast Asian Nation leaders have delayed a decision on his request for Burma to assume the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. This isn’t just a public humiliation for Thein Sein, but also a major diplomatic miscalculation.

So why didn’t he sound out fellow ASEAN members before making his bid?

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ASEAN has long provided protection to the dictatorship. But although it may still approve the chairmanship, comments from an Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesperson were unusually blunt, stating that Indonesia expects a ‘genuine democracy and reconciliation that involves all parties in Myanmar.’

ASEAN has also laid the groundwork for its get-out clause for refusing the request, while avoiding the real political reason, stating that Burma must have the physical infrastructure required for becoming chair.

If even ASEAN, one of the Burmese junta’s closest allies, doesn’t accept that there has been genuine change in the country, what hope do they have of persuading the rest of the world? 

Perception and reality have often been distant bedfellows in Burma. A few fine words and vague promises from the dictatorship are enough to get diplomatic pulses racing. Throw in the token release of a high-profile political prisoner and the generals know that diplomats and the media will be talking about change being on the way. They know this because they’ve pulled the same trick repeatedly over the decades.

Last year, after blatantly rigging elections, the dictatorship played its trump card, again. For the third time, they released Aung San Suu Kyi, and initially at least, the tactic worked. The rigged elections were forgotten or ignored, as were the 2,000 political prisoners still in jail, and the increased attacks against ethnic minority civilians in eastern Burma. 

Token gestures are more relevant for judging progress than continued human rights abuses, according to those promoting a policy of what amounts to appeasement towards the dictatorship. They point to the fact that an MP was allowed to ask a question about political prisoners , that Thein Sein made speeches promising reform, or that the regime appointed as an advisor an anti-sanctions economist who knows Aung San Suu Kyi. But it’s a sorry state of affairs when it’s claimed that progress is an MP being allowed to even table a question about political prisoners, rather than them actually being released.

Thein Sein has absolute constitutional power. He doesn’t need to talk, he can act. Nothing is forcing him to keep thousands of political prisoners in jail. Nothing is forcing him to send his soldiers into ethnic states to gang rape women. But he still is. This is the reality in Burma. It is one too often ignored.

By delaying accepting Burma as chair, ASEAN has acknowledged that there hasn’t been real change in the country, and certainly if it were to allow Burma’s brutal dictatorship to become chair, it would be a disgrace. But it would be equally disgraceful if they hid behind an excuse such as lack of hotel facilities for refusing Burma chairmanship.

ASEAN has one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships in its midst. They know it, the world knows it. Its policy of soft engagement has completely failed. Thein Sein presents a facade of change because he wants an end to international pressure. ASEAN tries to portray some change in Burma purely to save face. But even ASEAN leaders can’t stomach having Burma represent them internationally.  

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Having been forced to confront a little reality, ASEAN must face up to the fact that it needs to change its approach—or forever have the Burma millstone round its neck. They must tell Thein Sein that without real change, Burma will be expelled. Thein Sein and the generals around him crave legitimacy, and ASEAN must use that leverage.

Thein Sein has suffered a bad start to his dictatorship because he’s trying to present superficial change as real. If ASEAN can ensure that Thein Sein’s bad start just keeps getting worse—and if it refuses to accept cosmetic change—it might just force him to take some small steps towards real reform.

Baroness Glenys Kinnock is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma, in the British Parliament. She is a former minister in the British Foreign Office and a former MEP.