The annual Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) is coming up in two months and the baton will be handed to Thailand from Singapore. Because of the number of items on the table, Thailand will be given 18 months at the helm as Asean's chairman of the standing committee as opposed to the traditional 12 months. On Thailand's plate will be the grouping's human rights mechanism and the move to build and strengthen partnership with civil society, as well as the implementation of the Asean Charter, provided that all ten members ratify the document. The aim of the charter is to set the framework and a legal foundation for the regional grouping to restructure its existing mechanism.
No doubt about it, Thailand will have a lot on its plate. But judging from the past three months under the leadership of Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama, Thailand might be in over its head with the kind of workload needed to help Asean make this important transition. The test case for Thailand's diplomacy and leadership in the Southeast Asia region will definitely be the Asean relief effort in Burma. So far, judging from Noppadon's handling of the situation, not to mention his performance at the recent emergency meeting between Asean ministers in Singapore, the prospect of a sound performance is extremely bleak. The purpose of the chair of the Asean Standing Committee is to serve as a bridge between Burma and the outside world waiting to get into the devastated country with aid and expertise. It doesn't take a genius to understand why the Burmese junta welcomed this arrangement, especially with Thailand at the helm. This is because, time and again, the leaders in Rangoon are always one step ahead of their Thai counterparts, putting themselves in a position of relevancy without sacrificing too much of anything.
Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein, in his previous post as the head of the Keng Tung-based Triangle Command, was directly responsible for much of Thailand's woes.
Thein Sein consistently turned a blind eye as his men and his ethnic proxies crossed into Thailand to burn down Karen refugee camps or rape Shan women. There were times when he allowed Burmese soldiers to take the fight to Thailand's doorstep, bringing Thai-Burmese relations to its knees. He was steadfastly unapologetic, even for courting opium warlords who flooded Thailand and the world with tonnes of heroin and Thailand's streets with millions of methamphetamine tablets.
Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, on the other hand, made no bones about embracing the Burmese leadership. He even called them good Buddhists who like to go to temples. If the ruling State Peace and Development Council is the epitome of good Buddhists, perhaps its better a to be a Godless Communist. Chinese leaders and officials responded admirably to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. This is because Beijing understands that its legitimacy depends on the respect of the people they govern. The Burmese junta, in contrast, was being accused by some quarters in the international community of committing a crime against humanity with their refusal to do more to help the cyclone victims. Their belated admission of the depth of the disaster appeared to have been delayed so they could stage a mock referendum rubber-stamping theirself-serving position in Burma's political arena, while storm victims were dying by the thousands. Spurred by calls to invoke the international obligation "responsibility to protect", Senior General Than Shwe finally visited the devastated areas. Unlike the Chinese, he went there empty-handed.
But the emergency meeting in Singapore appeared to give the Burmese junta the much-needed push. The junta positioned itself neatly under the wings of Asean and all outsiders, including the UN agencies, are going to get in line if they want to get in.
Thailand, as chairman of the Asean standing committee, will function as gatekeeper. Let's hope that Noppadon has the moral courage to do the right thing. But judging from his previous actions, no one should hold his or her breath. The Burmese generals, meanwhile, must be licking their chops. Indeed, with neighbours like Samak and Noppodon, who needs accountability?