Distant neighbours

Published : Oct 19, 2007 00:00 IST

Indonesian labourers AT a demonstration in front of the Myanmarese embassy in Jakarta on October 3. - ADEK BERRY/AFP

Indonesian labourers AT a demonstration in front of the Myanmarese embassy in Jakarta on October 3. - ADEK BERRY/AFP

The latest groundswell of resistance to the junta has come as a shocking reality check for most of Myanmars fellow-members in ASEAN.

Indonesian labourers AT

AUNG San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Laureate and a celebrated democracy campaigner, is by far the best known face of the spirit of Myanmar and its hapless people. For long, the spirit she symbolises has been under a fierce siege. In recent weeks, though, hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks, as also students and simple folks, have risen in a singularly peaceful revolt against the military junta.

For years now, the military regime has masqueraded under the name of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). And the anti-junta protesters have, unsurprisingly, sought to co-opt Suu Kyi. The lady is still serving a prolonged period of house arrest for being the leader of a movement for democracy and for being a true believer in Mahatma Gandhis political principle of non-violence.

So, what should the international community do? And, by the end of the first week of October, what indeed has it done?

In a poignant coincidence, the United Nations celebrated, for the first time, Gandhijis birthday (October 2) as the International Day of Non-Violence. By then, outwardly at least, the heavily armed soldiers and police of the SPDC had easily prevailed over unarmed protesters on the streets of Yangon, commercial centre and former capital, and across Myanmar.

Predictably, the U.N. gesture in memory of the Mahatma produced no impact on the haughty SPDC, at least not immediately. On the International Day of Non-violence, the SPDC chairman, Senior General Than Shwe, received U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari at Naypyitaw, Myanmars relatively new, gleaming and insular capital.

Soon after their talks, Gambari, a seasoned interlocutor with some experience in reading the minds of the SPDC hierarchy, did not announce any breakthrough in his mission to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy. The phrase was of course used, in a related context, by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and not the U.N. itself. Myanmar is a member of both the U.N. and ASEAN.

Surprisingly, given the recent track record of the SPDC, Than Shwe permitted Gambari to meet Suu Kyi in Yangon on his way back to the U.N. headquarters. The U.N. envoy had earlier met her before calling on Than Shwe at the Senior Generals convenience. This development strengthened diplomatic speculation about the SPDCs guarded willingness to let Gambari play the mediator between Than Shwe and Suu Kyi.

Gambari, who stayed in Singapore for a while before heading for New York, would not be drawn into any public discourse on his talks with Than Shwe and Suu Kyi. On October 3, he did, however, brief Singapore Prime Minister and ASEAN Chairman Lee Hsien Loong, who had by then emerged as a central player on the international stage over this issue. Lee had earlier written to Than Shwe urging him to use the U.N.s good offices and engage Gambari so as to chart a way forward.

On balance, with Gambari winging his way back to New York without any public pronouncement on the outcome of his talks, there was a sense of gloom in diplomatic circles that the U.N. had not made the kind of progress it was hoping for.

Then, out of the blue as it were, the Myanmar State Television made an important disclosure on the night of October 4. Than Shwe mentioned to Gambari, during their talks on October 2, that Suu Kyi has been exerting efforts for confrontation with the SPDC and that she had campaigned for the imposition of all kinds of sanctions, including economic sanctions on Myanmar as a country. Then came the punchline. If she declares to give that up, the Senior General will personally meet her.

Surely, it was an important fragment of a concession from the SPDC towards not just Suu Kyi but also the protesting Buddhist monks, students and others. For the Naypyitaw generals, this was a way of seizing the diplomatic moment before Gambari could brief the U.N. Security Council on October 5 about his mission.

The U.N., with its overarching diplomatic authority on such matters, will remain a key player in addressing the political, economic and humanitarian aspects of the crisis. However, by early October, very much in focus as the potential troubleshooters were the ASEAN member countries, the United States, the European Union (E.U.), China, India and Russia as also Japan (the last two, to a lesser extent).

Of all these players, ASEAN has surprised the larger international community by being blunt with the SPDC. The Association has now gone to great lengths to put the junta-led Myanmar virtually on notice about its future within this 10-member forum.

Since Myanmars admission into ASEAN in 1997, especially in the past few years, the organisation has faced spiralling criticism, especially from the pro-democracy state-campaigners in the West.

The democracy lobby among ASEANs dialogue partners relentlessly portrayed its decision to admit Myanmar as a cardinal sin. More argumentatively, the sin was compounded by ASEANs failure, until the outbreak of the latest crisis, to persuade or pressure the SPDC to abandon its brutal suppression of democratic rights and denial of economic justice.

Understandably, though, the view from ASEAN has always been more nuanced. While admitting Myanmar, it was in fact looking to evolve into a full-fledged regional organisation of contiguous countries with somewhat similar historical experiences and with actual or potential connectivity. Historically, too, the internal political systems and practices of the member-states did not unduly trouble ASEAN. Indeed, its genesis, 40 years ago, could be traced in part to the desire of the associating countries to hold their own against China, a rising force even then, with the often open and mainly tacit support from the U.S. and the West.

Over time, ASEAN has, in its own enlightened self-interest, networked extensively with a more rapidly rising and changing China, besides the U.S.-led West and emerging powers such as India and Australia, among others. Now and then throughout the period of a frenetic networking by ASEAN, its constructive engagement with Myanmar, as a constituent state, came in for adverse notice by the pro-democracy Western lobby.

Constructive engagement was the principle by which Malaysia, a key founding member of ASEAN, had encouraged the forum to admit the military-ruled Myanmar. But, the SPDC has never been found wanting in embarrassing the rest of ASEAN. As a result, Myanmars nine fellow-members felt compelled to persuade it to give up voluntarily its rotational right to preside over the collective forum during the 2006-07 timeline.

In a sense, the voluntary renunciation of such a right suited the SPDC as it continued to keep its ASEAN seat, complete with all the attendant economic benefits flowing from the links to fellow-members. What the SPDC lost was only the responsibility of heading a diverse forum during a politically dynamic and economically vibrant phase of the ongoing globalisation process.

In January, long before protest rallies jolted the military regime, it was given a major reprieve at the U.N. Security Council. China and Russia, both permanent members, vetoed a draft resolution, which the U.S. and its allies pressed for in a bid to censure the SPDC. It took no time for China and Russia to detect that the real U.S. design was to use the draft resolution as a springboard to evolve a globalisation-related consensus about Western-style democracy as the political prescription for all U.N. member-states over time. China and Russia blocked the U.S. move arguing that the Myanmar situation at that stage posed no threat to regional and global peace and stability, which are the normative concerns of the Security Council.

This dramatic development at the U.N. and Myanmars earlier self-denial of a right to preside over ASEAN lulled the Association. And, the latest groundswell of anti-junta protest came as a shocking reality check for most of Myanmars fellow-members in ASEAN.

At one stage this year, other ASEAN members began drawing a fine distinction between the nearly interminable detention of Suu Kyi and the long absence of basic democratic rights under the SPDCs reign. In May, when Suu Kyis house arrest was extended by yet another year, the junta emphasised, more categorically than at any time before, that she no longer posed a threat to Myanmars internal stability and that she was not a factor to reckon with any more. The boast set ASEAN, by now a forum sans Myanmar on issues relating to that country, thinking fast. The first objective was identified as a serious effort to secure Suu Kyis personal freedom. The larger issue of Myanmars transition to democracy could be pursued thereafter in a manner that the SPDC might feel comfortable with. So ran this new thinking behind the scenes.

In the new context, ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong began advocating that China and India should help sort out the larger Myanmar question. But, neither Ong nor any ASEAN political leader outlined the exact roles that the two were expected to play, given their well-known willingness to do economic and strategic business with the SPDC for their own respective tactical reasons.

However, it appeared that Myanmars fellow-members in ASEAN might not be averse to a stunning idea, if that could be pursued at all. The question was whether Suu Kyi could be persuaded to move out of Myanmar. In a sense, the idea was that India, which granted asylum to the Dalai Lama nearly five decades ago, could perhaps play a suitable role in regard to Suu Kyi now, with the consent of all concerned, including the democracy campaigner herself.

However, the ground realities, which might make a mockery of any such notion, were and remain formidable Suu Kyis known determination to stay on in Myanmar and wage a peaceful struggle for democracy there, besides the question of Indias willingness to play host to her. Unlike the Dalai Lama, she is no religious personality whose political activities could be banned. Yet, the Dalai Lamas perceived freedom of movement across the world had set some thinking about a similar model for Suu Kyi. On balance, the idea has gained no traction in the public domain, and rightly so. Moreover, by early October, with the SPDC expressing its conditional readiness for a Than Shwe-Suu Kyi meeting, the Dalai Lama model can be expected to remain unthinkable.

Another idea discussed in diplomatic circles, shortly before Than Shwes conditional offer to Suu Kyi, was no less stunning. A line of thought in the U.S. circles was that China could perhaps be persuaded to provide asylum to Than Shwe and his associates in one of two situations the possibility of a successful West-backed democracy movement in Myanmar, at whatever human costs on the ground; or the possibility of the SPDC running for cover, at some stage of the protests.

China, unlike India, commands an enormous strategic space as a veto-empowered member of the Security Council. And, as Gambari prepared to brief the Council on October 5, all such out-of-the-box options were off the table. The focus was simply on how to make sense of Than Shwes conditional offer to Suu Kyi.

The E.U. is not a permanent member of the Security Council. Yet, the E.U., with its close interactive ties involving several key ASEAN states, emerged as a stakeholder in the domain of international efforts to resolve the Myanmar crisis. Stepping onto the same stage, at another level, was Japan, one of whose nationals was killed by SPDC soldiers as he was filming the protest marches in Yangon. However, at the time of writing this story, Japan had not imposed any sanctions that could bite the SPDC.

Against this kaleidoscopic background, what stood out the most, as Gambari rose to brief the Security Council, was the momentous shift in ASEANs collective attitude towards Myanmars junta as a member. The attitude of Indonesia, a Security Council member from ASEAN, will be important. A more fundamental issue is: Why have Myanmars fellow-members chosen to distance themselves from the SPDC? There are no official answers, but some trends are visible behind the scenes.

The Myanmar fatigue is a known phenomenon within ASEAN for some time now, and Myanmars fellow-members are keen to hold a smooth summit in Singapore later this year. Especially so, when the question of democracy as a system of governance is relevant to ASEANs current efforts to draft a charter suited to globalisation.

In this context, Thailand, a major ASEAN member-state under military rule, is treated as a temporary exception. With Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a retired military chief, setting a late-December timeline for a democracy-restoring general elections, Bangkok has not caused a Myanmar-like headache for the forum.

Bangkok itself is keen that the SPDC addresses the democracy issue squarely so that Thailand will not have to face a new and major crisis of having to deal with political and economic refugees from Myanmar.

At other levels of reasoning, some ASEAN states are dismayed and frustrated at the way the SPDCs admission had now turned into a nightmare for the entire forum. Two or three other members are keen that the military dictatorship in Myanmar is discredited, especially if it were to remain resistant to any idea of democracy.

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