Vol. 5 Num 351 Wed. May 25, 2005  

Don't push Myanmar into a corner

THE ongoing debate and speculation as to whether Myanmar would, or should, assume the chairmanship of Asean next year has, in a way, served to highlight again the rich and sometimes threatening diversity of the regional grouping and its unique style of arriving at consensus.

In this context, there have been ad nauseam commentaries, since Asean's membership increased to 10, that it had become a two-tiered grouping of the "more developed" original six (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) and the newer "struggling" countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam -- often known as the CLMV nations.

The message here was that the divide would contribute to greater administrative difficulties, including hammering out consensus.

The "two-tier" description is fair comment and remains a challenge that is being tackled by the grouping on the basis that the divide cannot and should not be a permanent feature.

To this end, Asean leaders adopted then-Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's proposal in November 2000 of the Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI) -- a package of practical ways and means to close the development gap.

Singapore, for example, opened training centres in the four CLMV countries in 2001 and has been providing tailored empowerment courses identified by the respective host countries. The other older members likewise have their own programmes.

While much of the reward accruing from the IAI programmes will be seen only in the long term, it is being accelerated by the great enthusiasm and demand for education and training in the CLMV countries, which are themselves as development-oriented as the older six countries.

However, what is sometimes missed out is that the Asean divide is more than merely economic or developmental. The Myanmar controversy has highlighted a difference in the mindset within the grouping, leading maybe even to a thin fissure line, with Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam demonstrating a greater empathy for Myanmar than the other member countries.

Here again, this is neither surprising nor can be wished away quickly given the historical baggage of the four countries and the difficulties they have individually encountered in warding off what they perceive to be foreign interference in their internal affairs.

No doubt, like the rest of Asean, the CLMV countries recognise the dilemma faced if Myanmar assumes the chairmanship next year: It will not be helpful for Asean.

At the same time, if Myanmar is forced out of the chairmanship against its will, it would also not be a desired outcome and would be a bad precedent.

However, despite these practical regional considerations, the CLMV countries are particularly outraged by external pressure (read Western governments) now disingenuously using the back door of Asean's rotating chairmanship to pursue an objective in Myanmar.

What hitherto could not be achieved by external pressure against an individual member country would now appear possible because of a weak spot in Asean's organisational structure.

It was, therefore, not at all surprising that the well-honed survival instincts of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos immediately detected areas of concern and threats for themselves in what was happening to Myanmar.

Many questions rushed to the fore as these countries themselves had nagging internal problems which have been externalised -- treatment of minority ethnic groups, human rights violations, or broad governance issues.

Has Asean cohesiveness weakened? Can a member country under external pressure depend on Asean support if it is its turn to chair the regional grouping? Is Asean membership still premium? More importantly, which country will be next?

These are valid questions if you are weak and dependent on foreign direct investment and donor assistance for survival.

Meanwhile, there is a school of thought -- not just in the CLMV countries but in Asean as a whole -- that seriously doubts whether the present "take it or leave it" Western approach can achieve its objectives in Myanmar.

This school believes the strong-arm methods at most bruise the ego of the ruling junta in Yangon without directly benefiting or furthering the cause of Myanmar's people -- the very purpose for the sanctions and threats in the first place. In fact, the fear is that Myanmar may be driven backwards.

This school bemoans that Western powers and liberal bleeding-hearts do not understand regional dynamics, and while all the grandstanding and loud threats may serve to placate some constituencies at home, it is counter-productive to encouraging reform in the target country.

They point out that in the present instance, Myanmar can, for example, take a rain check on the chairmanship and then proceed at a pace the junta is comfortable with in the constitutional process.

Here, members of this school of thought point to China with its quiet diplomacy playing a cleverer regional game than Western countries -- supporting the theory that there are times when it is best that less is said.

Myanmar bears a heavy burden and increasingly, the indications are it is waiting for an appropriate time and forum to pass up its turn at chairmanship.

Apparently, it has privately dropped encouraging hints to individual member countries of its intention to sacrifice national pride and be helpful to the region. Should this happen, it would demonstrate a definite shift in the attitude of this proud country.

While waiting for the next move, possibly at the Asean Ministerial Meeting in July, here is something to ponder.

There was a time not too long ago when a Myanmar that had come under the kind of pressure of the past months would have just walked out of Asean.

No doubt it is a somewhat different Myanmar now -- perhaps less confident and arguably less united. Nevertheless, the possibility cannot be dismissed that it can still walk out of the regional organisation.

In such a situation, Myanmar would have calculated it need not fear isolation -- it can move closer to China and to India while continuing to maintain bilateral relations with its erstwhile Asean partners.

Such a move would neither be good for the region nor for the people of Myanmar.

The writer, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies, Singapore.

Leader of Myanmar opposition Aung San Su Kyi. PHOTO: AFP