Region: The ASEAN Dynamic - The Road to a 2020 Security Community passes through Yangon


James Cotton

The meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers held 29-30 June was notable in two respects. First, the proposal for an 'ASEAN Security Community', advocated by Indonesia - in the context of the 2003 undertaking to construct an ASEAN Community by 2020 - was accepted by the ministers. Its content remains unclear, however, and it will be the responsibility of the next ASEAN summit to agree to adopt the proposal and then to reveal it to their citizens and the public at large. Indonesia faced a great deal of opposition to the proposal, which apparently was significantly diluted as the result of negotiations at the meeting. The only announcement of the content of the negotiations added the concept of 'political development' to the now very familiar ASEAN processes of conflict avoidance and resolution.

But political development, or the lack of it, in Myanmar/Burma constituted, once again, a major embarrassment for the organization. The Communiqué that concluded the meeting contained praise for the progress of democracy in Asia. It then urged the government in Yangon to ensure that its National Convention, in working towards 'a smooth transition to democracy', recognized 'the need for the involvement of all strata of Myanmar society'. However, despite similar sentiments being voiced last year, there are no signs that the SPDC military regime is contemplating relinquishing power or even engaging Aung San Suu Kyi in renewed dialogue. Indeed, attitudes may be hardening, with the refusal by Yangon to accept a visit from former foreign minister Ali Alatas acting as a special envoy on the Myanmar issue for President Megawati.

This set the stage for the annual meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum at the beginning of July. Pakistan became a new member and issues such as terrorism were constructively discussed, but the Myanmar question produced heated disagreement, with the US, Australia and the EU in particular taking ASEAN to task for its lack of resolve in pressuring Yangon to achieve political progress. The Chairman's summary, being the personal responsibility of the host, the Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Hassan Wirajuda, reiterated the ASEAN position. There are signs nonetheless that some key actors have decided that patience alone will not produce a positive result.

There are many reasons to seek a solution to the Myanmar issue, not the least its impact on ASEAN's image and the constant dangers posed by the spill-over effects of drug and HIV related problems for other ASEAN states, especially Thailand. The most important challenge, however, derives from the fact that Yangon will be the ASEAN host nation in 2006. Already the ASEM process is in crisis, with doubts that the next Asia-Europe meeting due in Hanoi in October will be convened. ASEAN has taken the position that all its new members, including Myanmar, should attend, while the EU finds Yangon an unacceptable participant as long as Aung San Suu Kyi remains in detention and there is no credible progress in Myanmar towards democratization. Currently even the regime's plans for the latter appear to be facing difficulties. In July, the hand picked National Convention, the task of which is to draft a constitution (after which elections may be held), broke up without a date for a new meeting being fixed. The government in Yangon has only months to respond to these pressures. Its failure to do so could threaten the entire ASEAN process.

The proposal for an ASEAN Security Community will lose credibility if there is no concrete and affirmative response to even the muted requests of this year's ASEAN ministerial meeting. It is quite likely, in those circumstances, that many members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (possibly including the EU, the US, Australia and New Zealand) would then stay away from the annual meeting due in Yangon immediately following the ASEAN ministerial meeting. Indonesia's leadership aspirations would be undermined, and questions might even be raised regarding the utility of the ARF itself. In July, the US renewed its program of trade and investment sanctions. In an unprecedented development a multi-party 'Malaysian Parliamentary Pro-Democracy Myanmar Caucus' was formed in Kuala Lumpur, indicating that there is a degree of bi-partisan agreement on the seriousness of the issue. The discovery of the bugging of Indonesia's embassy in Yangon has done nothing to improve ASEAN confidence in Myanmar. Meanwhile Laos has assumed the role of ASEAN chair, which places the issue in the hands of the one regional government least likely to take a constructive interest in the democratization issue.

WATCHPOINT: Will ASEAN frustration with the lack of progress towards democracy in Myanmar lead to a real shift in the organization's approach?


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