Asean's decision on whether Burma will be allowed to chair the organisation in 2014 has been deferred until later in the year. Asean is in no rush to approve the Burmese bid to become head of Asean, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told the Bangkok Post yesterday, just days ahead of the May 7-8 Asean summit in Jakarta.
Burmese President Thein Sein (left) is escorted by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at a welcoming ceremony at the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta yesterday. Mr Thein Sein is in Indonesia on a state visit and will attend the 18th Asean Summit from May 7-8.As the current chair of Asean, Indonesia expects to first make a fact-finding mission to the country. Asean will only consider Burma's application to chair the organisation after that.
Mr Marty said he intended to meet Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during that visit, which is likely to occur in the coming weeks.
The new quasi-civilian government in Naypyidaw is desperate to get Asean's approval, and being accepted as chairman of the organisation would certainly give them much-needed credibility.
Burma under the old military regime skipped its turn as chair of Asean in 2006, in the face of strong international pressure led by Western countries, especially the United States, to have the oganisation disown its difficult ally because of human rights abuses and the lack of progress towards democracy.
Asean has no intention of being rushed into anything that might give the new government any form of legitimacy, the Indonesian foreign minister said. "We will not be pressured into bestowing credibility on the new regime without assessing first-hand the changes," Mr Marty said.
The new government and civilian administration are definitely developments, he said. "But we first have to digest these developments before considering Burma's bid to be the Asean chair. There is a process to go through involving procedures and technicalities."
The Burmese government has understood all along that a fact-finding mission would have to be conducted before Burma's candidacy for the chairmanship could be considered. This was made clear to Burma's foreign minister when he attended the special Asean foreign ministers meeting in Bangkok last month.
The new Thein Sein regime is anxious to have Asean give it legitimacy, by agreeing to its bid for the Asean chair in 2014. The government recently asked the Indonesian foreign minister to visit Burma. "Clearly I could not go at such short notice _ and there is too much to be done here in the lead-up to the summit," Mr Marty said. "Also I was concerned to avoid being used by the Myanmar government for its own purposes."
His planned trip to Burma last January was postponed by the regime because they were too busy forming the new government.
He smiled and said, "I know, I know. They are always busy."
At their retreat in Bogor in late January, the foreign ministers told Burma that an Asean delegation led by Indonesia was essential. This was reinforced last month when the new Burmese foreign minister formerly asked his Asean counterparts to agree to Burma taking the chair in 2014.
It will be a fact-finding mission, he said. "We need to see what changes have been introduced by the new civilian government and assess whether they are in a position to host the summit in three years' time."
It remains to be seen what concessions Asean, and the Indonesian foreign minister in particular, will try to extract from the Burmese government, using the latter's desire to be chairman of the organisation as a bargaining chip.
"We must avoid lecturing, bullying and threatening, as that will only be counter-productive. Instead we have to encourage and coax them," he said. This is an attitude shared by all the other Asean foreign ministers, though some countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are much more supportive than the organisation's original five members: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore,Thailand and the Philippines.
"We are all concerned about Burma," the Malaysian foreign minister told the Bangkok Post on the sidelines of an Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Hanoi last year.
"We understand that Burma is an embarrassment for us all. But the more we push, the more they resist. We've tried lots of carrots in a quiet way," he said, including offering training, technical advice and expert visits. But Burma has not been interested in these offers.
But with a new civilian government, and some civilians at least now in leading advisory roles, the Burmese leaders may be more accommodating, according to Asian diplomats. The hope is that Thein Sein will be more approachable and accommodating. "We have no option but to continue to engage Burma's leaders," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said recently. "The situation for the Burmese people would be a lot worse if we hadn't." But privately he confided: "Change in Burma is going to take a very, very long time."
The Indonesian foreign minister would be an excellent envoy to visit Burma. All last year before the elections, he worked tirelessly to get the military regime to accept election monitors, or visitors, to "experience the election", as he liked to put it. He failed of course, but always remained optimistic to the very last minute.
"We understand how hard the transition to democracy is; we have valuable lessons to share with the Burmese government," he said.
Mr Marty told the Bangkok Post that he intends to try to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi during any future agreed trip to Burma. "That is certainly my intention," he said, but stopped short of saying it would be a prerequisite for the visit.