Myanmar: Myanmar And Asean


Frank Milne

The junta must be feeling disillusioned with the results of their decision to join ASEAN. They evidently hoped that the departure from strict non-alignment to seek ASEAN membership, finally achieved in July 1997, would not only give the regime some international credibility and provide a security blanket against Western criticism of anti-democratic practices, but would also open up new sources of investment to rescue the ailing economy of Myanmar. These hopes have failed to materialise. Although regional investment in Myanmar has not totally dried up, in the wake of the Asian financial meltdown regional countries have little spare capital and less interest in pursuing financially risky ventures in Myanmar.

In addition, as ASEAN has become a larger and more heterogenous organisation, its former unity on regional issues has declined. This was apparent at the ASEAN Summit in Manila in December 1998- the most obvious example being the divisions on the timing of Cambodia's admission. Similarly the former tradition of avoiding any criticism of the internal affairs of other members has fallen into abeyance, and Myanmar has found itself exposed to criticism from within the organisation. As sound relations with the EU have become more important in ASEAN's weakened economic situation, Myanmar is increasingly seen as a liability for the Association. The more liberal members, in particular the Philippines and Thailand, which have been urging the need for greater accountability, democracy and market liberalisation within ASEAN have not hesitated to press Myanmar on the need for internal reform.

However, despite European Union sanctions, tightened last October, and diplomatic pressure from ASEAN, the State Peace and Development Council is unlikely to go any further than making cosmetic changes while striving to maintain its rigid control of the country and repression of the opposition National League for Democracy, which has if anything intensified in recent months. The appointment of U Win Aung as Foreign Minister in November 1998 is a case in point. A former colonel who subsequently served in senior diplomatic posts, U Win Aung is understood to have close links with Lt Gen Khin Nyunt and is better connected with the inner circle of power than his civilian predecessor U Ohn Gyaw. His more personable and flexible approach, as seen during the Manila Summit, does not however disguise the fact that the message is still the same.

WATCHPOINT: External pressure on Myanmar for reform is unlikely to have much effect as long as there is no economic advantage in prospect.


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