Southeast Asian nations split over treatment of Burma
At the annual summit of 10 nations, some countries refused to press Burma to tolerate political dissent.
Divisions over Burma (Myanmar) overshadowed the 40th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in Singapore this week. The 10 Southeast Asian members signed a "historic charter" Tuesday affirming their commitment to form a regional bloc and to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. But failure to take a stand on Burma exposed rifts within the group.Skip to next paragraph
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At least one country, the Philippines, suggested it would not ratify the charter unless Burma explicitly embraced democracy and freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The ASEAN charter creates permanent representation for members at its secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia. It commits to meetings twice a year and includes a blueprint for creating a European-style trading bloc by 2015, reports The New York Times. The charter promises to create a human rights body but has no provisions to enforce such standards.
The squabbling over Myanmar only underscored the disparate levels of political maturity and development that exist between Asean's older and newer members.
ASEAN's newer members, poor and ruled by autocratic governments — Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — empathize with Myanmar's ruling junta and oppose efforts to press it to tolerate political dissent. Analysts said these countries feared that any stronger action by ASEAN on Myanmar might set an unwelcome precedent.
Earlier in the week, host Singapore, under pressure from Burma, withdrew an invitation to Ibrahim Gambari, UN special envoy to Burma, to speak at the conference, reports Australia's The Age.
Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, was forced to explain the decision to the media.
"Prime Minister Thein Sein of Myanmar [Burma] made clear that the situation in Myanmar was a domestic Myanmar affair and that Myanmar was fully capable of handling the situation itself," he said.
International outrage over Burma's military crackdown may cost ASEAN dearly, The Age suggested. Already, it is stalling free trade negotiations with the United States and causing diplomatic trouble with Europe.
The president of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, Wednesday threatened to veto the final charter, reports Philippine daily The Inquirer.
"While we are pleased that we have incorporated language in the Charter that advances human rights and democracy, we remain concerned that the forces of authoritarianism still move rather slowly towards democracy in Myanmar," Arroyo told reporters shortly here shortly before flying back to Manila.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the summit, Mr. Gambari said that ASEAN needs to "beef up" its role if it is to influence Burma, reports the Singapore-based Channel News Asia.
"[T]hose who support the [ASEAN] secretary-general could do so in concrete terms by encouraging the government of Myanmar to cooperate fully, regularly and authentically with United Nations good officers," [Gambari] added.