Sunday, April 24, 2011

Burma’s Charm Offensive Has Asean Caught in the Middle

Larry Jagan | April 24, 2011

 Burma has begun a diplomatic charm offensive in an effort to get international approval for the cosmetic changes the administration has introduced under the guise of a new civilian government.

Political power was officially transferred to the new president, Thein Sein, a month ago, ending more than two decades of a military dictatorship. The new administration’s first priority is to reduce international isolation. The longer-term goal is to end sanctions.

But the diplomatic offensive will inevitably increase tensions among most Western countries, which still support sanctions against the regime, and the bulk of Asian nations, which are eager to integrate Burma into the region. The initiatives are likely to intensify divisions between Asia and the West — especially the United States — on how to cope with Burma’s strategic aims.

As soon as he was sworn in as president, Thein Sein wrote to the Asean Secretariat asking the organization to accept Burma’s bid to become chairman in 2014. In 2004, Burma gave up on the chance to become chairman in 2006 amid international pressure on the group to reject Burma’s turn. Now the government wants Asean’s approval at its summit in Indonesia next month.

But some of Burma’s neighbors are wary of being used as a pawn in its global mission to prove that the new government really is different than a naked military dictatorship. Burma’s desire to take over the chairmanship of Asean is being seen by some in the organization as a possible bargaining chip to extract some meaningful change and concessions from its most troublesome member.

Burma has been a thorn in Asean’s side ever since it joined the body in 1997, and has been a major obstacle to smoother and deeper relations with its strategic partners. The new quasi-civilian government has only complicated the situation.

Beijing has warmly welcomed the new regime — and was the first to send a top political figure to the capital to endorse the changes. Jia Qinglin, the fourth-most important man in the Communist Party’s political bureau, arrived in the Burmese capital just two days after Thein Sein became president. Interestingly, he did not meet former junta boss Gen. Than Shwe during the visit. Jia reportedly brought more than a billion dollars in aid and soft-loans for development and military hardware. But for the new political leadership in the capital, Naypyidaw, it is Asean’s recognition it craves most.

In 2004, the Asean foreign ministers breathed a collective sigh of relief when Burma made a series of excuses to get out of the 2006 chair and save face — as they had been under international pressure to send a strong message to the junta that real change was essential if they were to take the seat. At the Asean summit in Hanoi last year, Thein Sein — then under Than Shwe’s instructions — pushed for Burma to be given the chairmanship in 2011. Looking forward to the new civilian government, the top military rulers thought that the chairmanship, coming simultaneously with the cosmetic change to constitutional rule, would send a strong message to the international community.

But Indonesia, Cambodia and Brunei were conferred as the next three chairs — so the earliest Burma could expect to head the organization is in 2014.

The Hanoi decision was a clear message to Burma that concrete change was expected, Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said in Hanoi last year.

Now Asean is in a quandary. Its members understand that the polls were fraudulent and they are left again to rue their unconditional incorporation of Burma into Asean in 1997, a move pushed by Malaysia to celebrate the alliance’s 30th anniversary by incorporating all 10 Southeast Asian nations into the body. The official Asean position has always been to give the Burmese government the benefit of the doubt. So how can they criticize Burma’s political charade, while keeping any influence they might have with the new regime?

Indonesia and Thailand have taken the recent lead to coax change out of the military-based government, according to Asian diplomats. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa wanted to visit Burma after the election and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi last year as an Asean envoy — Indonesia is the current chair. But the planned January visit was postponed indefinitely.

The situation is a mess. Washington has already chipped into the controversy, indicating it would be reluctant to work closely with Burma as Asean’s chair. “Obviously, we would have concerns about Burma in any kind of leadership role because of their poor human rights record,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said earlier this week.

For Asean, there is no easy way out of this diplomatic muddle.

Larry Jagan, a freelance journalist in Bangkok, previously covered Burmese politics for the BBC.

Asia Sentinel