Leaning on Burma, Asian nations find new voice

ASEAN urged Burma Tuesday to free pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

As diplomatic statements go, it was a gentle poke. But for the usually timid Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) the carefully crafted criticism of a member state may be a bold turning point.

Meeting in Cambodia, the region's foreign ministers called on Burma's military regime to release jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues. "We welcome the assurances given by Burma that the measures taken ... were temporary and look forward to early lifting of restrictions placed on Aung San Suu Kyi," their statement read.

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has been in detention since a pro- government militia attacked her convoy on May 30, and Foreign Minister Win Aung has said she would be released but given no time frame.

ASEAN has long presented Burma's membership as a form of "constructive engagement," in contrast to Western sanctions and criticism. But critics say there's been little effort to raise the bar in ASEAN on political and social rights, unlike the European Union's emphasis on common standards. This week's statement represents a step in that direction.

"The statement might seem a bit mild, but it's a major step for ASEAN," says Chayachoke Chulasiriwongse, professor of international relations at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. "People are always complaining about the limitations of noninterference in state affairs."

ASEAN's final communiqué, however, stopped short of punishing Burma for its actions, despite calls from Western countries that are extending sanctions on the regime. Speaking at the Asian Regional Forum that runs concurrently with the ASEAN meeting, Secretary of State Colin Powell, here on a lightning Asian tour, repeated calls for Burma to release its most famous dissident.

Powell also turned his attention to North Korea, which snubbed the forum by sending a low-ranking diplomat in place of its foreign minister. That dented US hopes that Pyongyang might be called to task by countries from across the region. "No issue is of greater urgency to the US than North Korea's nuclear- weapons program," he told reporters. That urgency only increased Wednesday as North Korea acknowledged publicly for the first time that it has a nuclear weapons program and issued threats to strengthen it.

Divisions over agenda

While Burma represents a lesser threat to regional security than a nuclear North Korea, the US is keen to see Asian allies engage both nations, particularly before multilateral forums that can present a united front to so-called "rogue regimes."

Although ASEAN clearly felt Western pressure to act on Burma, analysts say the shift in policy also reflects internal dissent over the grouping's role. Officials in the Philippines and Thailand who want to see more proactive diplomacy on issues such as labor migration are often rebuffed by those such as Malaysia who prefer the traditional agenda of trade talks and keeping up appearances.

Founded in the 1960s as an anti- communist grouping, ASEAN expanded in the 1990s to incorporate Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. Its member states range from full-fledged democracies like Thailand to repressive regimes like Burma's, which enjoys tacit support from other autocracies for a soft approach.

Optimists point out that ASEAN has forged common ground on regional security since last October's terrorist bombing in Bali, Indonesia. The next step, they say, is to extend such cooperation to sensitive issues like human trafficking and illegal drugs, as well as regional hotspots like Burma, rather than relying on global bodies to take charge. Efforts by UN envoy Razali Ismail to broker political talks between the regime and Suu Kyi appear to be in ruins.

"ASEAN could become strong and more united if it works together on these issues. It could possibly even become a counter-balance to China and the US," says Panitan Wattanyagorn, an adviser to former Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai.

An eye to investment

But ASEAN appears loath to use its economic clout to squeeze the junta. Starved of foreign aid and investment in recent years, Burma's rulers have turned to China and Southeast Asia. Malaysia has been among those keener to invest in Burma's oil, mineral, and timber resources.

"By sitting on its hands for so many years, ASEAN has actually contributed to the current crisis in Burma," says Debbie Stothard, coordinator of Alt-SEAN Burma, a regional human rights group.

Ms. Stothard and other campaigners say ASEAN would become more robust and command greater international clout if it sets higher standards on political rights and governance.

Such a move would not only ease tensions with Western allies frustrated with regimes like that in Burma but also strengthen ASEAN's hand in dealing with regional conflicts.

"Once there is commitment to greater openness and some (human rights) benchmark ... you have a greater opportunity for conflict resolution to take place in the region," says Stothard. "Every country in every region has their problems.... The question is whether ASEAN is enough of a community to aspire to something better."

Such sentiments cut little ice with conservatives within ASEAN, who say the primary focus must remain keeping the peace, not promoting democracy. "In the ASEAN community we know that we can't relocate and we can't chose our neighbors," says an adviser to a member-state government. "So we have to get along well enough that we don't risk burning down each other's houses."

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