IT seemed like a good idea at the time: Invite Myanmar into Asean, allowing it to partake of the wealth of the region.
The promise of greater prosperity would lead to economic reform, and surely that would ultimately lead to democratic reform.
Except that it hasn’t. Myanmar is still ruled by a brutal and repressive regime; its people have no avenue for self-determination or self-expression; and dissent is met with torture, rape and murder.
According to some estimates, its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita is US$300, with a vast majority of its 40-million-plus population living below the poverty line.
And its “Lady Liberty” and best hope for democracy, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest after what seemed like a failed assassination attempt by the ruling military junta in 2003.
Asean now has to face an uncomfortable truth: That despite the best of intentions, the “constructive engagement” concept has failed to awaken any democratic process that would have made Myanmar a deserving member of the regional grouping.
“Oh, it has most definitely failed,” says Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, who has been leading opposition in Thailand against Myanmar’s assumption of the Asean chairmanship in 2006.
Asean has always adopted a non-interventionist stance, but that has been fraying at the edges. Earlier this month, Asean Members of Parliament (MPs) in a special interest group on Myanmar asked for Suu Kyi to be freed and for Yangon to follow a credible road map to democracy.
Otherwise, Myanmar is not qualified to become Asean’s chairman, the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus says.
Kraisak has been leading the fight for a free Myanmar in Thailand. Last month, he led a group of nearly 80 senators who signed a petition calling for the government to deny Myanmar the chairmanship.
“Many of us who have been through the process of democratic reforms in our own countries have decided to follow Malaysia’s Parliamentarian lead to obstruct Myanmar’s assumption of the Asean chair,” he says.
“We are asking our governments not to support Myanmar until the democratic process shows some progress, beginning namely with the release of Suu Kyi.”
Unlike previous support for democratic reforms in Asean countries, this one has gone beyond the opposition parties of member countries, who have always found common purpose.
Indeed, the leader of the Malaysian caucus for democratic reform in Myanmar is an Umno member, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim.
“Zaid has a very logical approach ? he does not propose an imposition of Western-style democracy in Myanmar, but says that any member of Asean should have some standards in human rights protection,” says Kraisak.
“His call is in fact very attractive to Indonesians, Filipinos, Malaysians and even Singaporeans, who are very reserved by nature.”
In the Philippines, for example, the Lower House and Senate have formed a resolution to deny Myanmar the Asean chairmanship.
This would be just the first step, says Kraisak.
“The next could be suspension from Asean, then expulsion,” he adds, conceding however that subsequent actions have not been actively discussed yet.
Wouldn’t that be going down a dangerous path, where Asean may start acting as an interventionist body?
“These outrageous human rights violations that have been going on unabated need international opposition ? there is no other option,” says Kraisak.
And to those still espousing constructive engagement, he adds, “When you see villages marked for relocation, state-sanctioned mass murder, gang rapes, disappearances and torture, you have a moral obligation not to engage that government in business.”
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