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Democracy’s Newest, Most Reliable Friends in Southeast Asia

Peter Eng has covered Southeast Asia for more than a decade

In recent weeks, Myanmar’s dissident leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has upped the pressure on the iron-fisted generals ruling her country by demanding the convening of the parliament that was elected in 1990 but never allowed to form. Twice she refused to leave her car to protest the authorities’ move to prevent her from meeting with party members. The United States, as usual, backed Suu Kyi. But more important, Myanmar’s neighbors did not stay silent as usual. Thailand and the Philippines publicly urged the Myanmar government to show restraint and to discuss national reconciliation with its opposition. Thailand’s foreign ministry welcomed talks Yangon held last month with Suu Kyi’s party, but also said she herself should be allowed to participate without preconditions. It was the first time a Thai statement had mentioned Suu Kyi by name.

Thailand and the Philippines, the two democracies in the nine-member Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, are getting tougher with Myanmar as part of their broader campaign for a more open Southeast Asia. The United States, having already imposed economic and political sanctions, has little leverage left. But Myanmar must listen to its neighbors, to some degree. It is now a member of ASEAN, and three fellow members--Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand--are among its top four sources of foreign investment.

The new outspokenness comes at a key time. With antigovernment demonstrations flaring again, and its economy driven to the precipice by the regional downturn, Myanmar faces a daunting convergence of internal and external pressures. If Myanmar had hoped to use ASEAN as a shield against criticism from the West, it clearly had not anticipated criticism from Thailand and the Philippines. It remains to be seen if the new initiative will work, but neither the West’s isolationism nor ASEAN’s traditionally quiet methods of persuasion have improved the human-rights situation in Myanmar. So far, Yangon has called the two countries “presumptuous,” insisting it will stick to its own agenda.

The past year has taught ASEAN members that they have become so interdependent that a problem in one country can quickly become a problem for all. Thailand’s economic crisis is one example. The haze from forest fires in Indonesia, which crossed into five other countries, is another. But reluctant to “meddle,” ASEAN members never protested to either government, thereby helping the problems to spread.

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But Thailand is challenging ASEAN’s sacred principle, since the organization’s founding in 1967, of “noninterference” in the “internal affairs” of neighboring countries. When ASEAN foreign ministers met in July, Thailand proposed a “flexible engagement” policy whereby ASEAN would make exceptions and use “peer pressure” when problems spilled across members’ borders. Myanmar was such a case: More than 100,000 Myanmarese fleeing conflict and a half million others fleeing poverty have crossed into Thailand. Bangkok also said that, like it or not, ASEAN should deal with democracy and human rights issues in its relations with the outside world.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and others successfully opposed Thailand’s views. With their economies in tatters, they contended, ASEAN members now more than ever must preserve noninterference and the other principles that have kept such diverse countries united for 31 years. No doubt these countries also fear that, one day, flexible engagement could be used to pressure them to democratize.

ASEAN’s authoritarian-minded majority was bolstered by the entry of Vietnam, the first communist member, and Myanmar and Laos. The sacking of Malaysia’s liberal deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, strengthened the organization’s archconservative, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. On the other hand, constitutional reform and uneventful leadership transitions have buttressed democracy in Thailand and the Philippines. Indonesia, by far ASEAN’s largest member, is continuing its post-Suharto reforms; if democracy roots there, the power of ASEAN’s liberals could be decisive.

Yet even ASEAN’s conservatives are frustrated with Myanmar’s intransigence. They mistakenly expected Myanmar to moderate its behavior once it joined the club. Instead, events have borne out U.S. misgivings about admitting Myanmar, and ASEAN has felt the consequences. A meeting with the European Union was canceled because the EU rejected Myanmar’s participation. The annual ASEAN-U.S. dialogue had to be moved from Washington to Manila because the Americans refused to grant visas to the Burmese. Everyone now realizes that Myanmar is further weakening ASEAN when economic woes already have crippled it, alienating the association from the West when it needs help with recovery.

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The constant prodding of the United States, the EU and Australia may have helped influence Thailand and the Philippines to get tougher. Other strong pressures have come from human rights and other nongovernmental organizations, which are proliferating across Southeast Asia and increasingly coordinating activities on a transnational basis.

Thailand and the Philippines say they will continue speaking out no matter what their ASEAN partners do. During the ASEAN meeting in July, Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan called for “a new political order” in Myanmar. With Myanmar’s foreign minister sitting at the same table, Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon told a news conference that Burmese living overseas should return home and change their country “from within.” He added that the Burmese people can rise up in the same way Filipinos did in overthrowing dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

There is recent precedent for intervention. After Hun Sen’s coup in Cambodia in July 1997, ASEAN canceled Cambodia’s scheduled entry into the organization, formed a three-country team that mediated the conflict and told Hun Sen that membership was impossible until he held free and fair elections in which the opposition participated. The elections were held, but opposition parties say Hun Sen cheated his way to victory. ASEAN says it will not consider admitting Cambodia until a government acceptable to the Cambodian people and the international community is formed.

Never before had ASEAN taken such direct action to pressure a neighbor on a largely internal conflict. Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Kobsak Chutikul, speaking personally, suggested that ASEAN offer to similarly mediate between the Yangon government and Suu Kyi’s party.


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