Progress as Asean finally backs away from Burma
Asean finally has mustered the courage to inform the Burmese military junta that the grouping will not support the pariah state in front of the world's highest political body, the United Nations Security Council.
If the current diplomatic effort, spearheaded by the United States, to add the situation in Burma to the council's agenda comes to fruition in the near future, Burma will be isolated and forced to fight alone.
This will be an important milestone in Asean history. As a rule, Asean does not abandon its members, but rather always fights united like a pack of wolves. Asean has learned its lesson after decades of hard-won battles in the UN. During the Cambodian conflict (1978 to 1991), Asean made its name by fully backing Thailand's efforts to find a political solution in the war-torn country. Its diplomatic credibility and skills helped to garner and sustain the international community's support, which led to a peaceful settlement and democratic elections in Cambodia.
In the case of Burma, Asean has taken great pains not to say anything that would reveal discord among its members. After years of risking its reputation by defending Burma in multilateral forums, Asean has finally come to terms with its pariah member. Asean will now do whatever is necessary to save the organisation and no longer dwell on the challenges of defending an unworthy member.
Today, more and more members are convinced that the Burmese junta has not been at all cooperative with its Asean colleagues in efforts to find political solutions in Burma. They believe that Rangoon is dragging its feet to ensure that future political manoeuvring will perpetuate the current junta's grip on power. Obviously, Asean is not going to play into the junta's hands.
At present, pessimism strongly prevails in Asean. There is no hope that the opposition, especially Aung San Suu Kyi, will be included in the political process as envisaged. The junta is following its own timeframe. Therefore, more pressure and action from the council and the international community is pivotal.
This helps explain why during the past year, the situation in Burma has been in the minds of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), who have been tasked with coming up with recommendations for the drafting of the Asean charter. Burma's intransigence and its far-reaching repercussions are the main reasons why Asean has to scrutinise and come up with measures against non-compliance.
Of course, non-compliance within Asean is not limited only to political issues. In recent decades, there have been many problems related to full compliance under various schemes of Asean economic and trade cooperation as well. Those members who have refused to comply have been able to get away with it and have never been made to face any punishment.
The EPG will meet for the last time in Brunei in November before submitting a report to Asean leaders at the summit in Cebu, Philippines. One of the new ideas is how to sanction a member that fails to comply with the Asean charter once it's established.
Various "innovative sanctions" that have been suggested to reprimand disobedient members have been difficult for many members to swallow to a greater extent than EPG members would like to admit. This is especially the case among new Asean members because they fear that they might one day become victims of this very scheme. However, with the Burmese quagmire visibly lurking in the background, they inevitably have to tackle this problem.
In typical Asean fashion, the EPG could only agree on milder forms of sanctions without any provision demanding a member's expulsion, as is the case in other regional organisations. For any sanction, including a restriction on rights and privileges, to be implemented, the grouping's nine members must agree unanimously. The member targeted for sanction will be excluded.
Asean leaders can still strengthen this provision in December if there is a growing demand within the group. Recently, Cambodian lawmakers joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Inter-Parliamentarian Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC), making this pressure group a powerful instrument to use in pressuring Burma to open up. Even Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been a strong supporter of the Burmese junta, has told AIPMC delegates that Burma needs to implement political reforms.
The AIPMC has called for Suu Kyi's freedom and for Burma to be expelled from Asean. Only three Asean members - Brunei, Vietnam and Laos - have yet to join the caucus. That could change in the next few months. The caucus's strong advocacy on behalf of abandoning the longstanding principle of non-interference in the international affairs of member states, which has been a pillar of Asean cooperation over nearly four decades, has had a positive impact on the EPG. It has increased awareness among its members of the need to be more pragmatic.
Asean's unfortunate experience with Burma is also a blessing in disguise as it allows pro-reform members in Asean the impetus to argue strongly in favour of greater flexibility in exercising the non-interference principle. In the future, the code of conduct within Asean will be more or less based on shared responsibilities and obligations. In the jargon of Asean, that means the diminishing of the non-interference principle.