Can the regional grouping afford to let pariah member lead it on the world stage in 2014?

How long will Asean continue to stand up for its pariah member? At the latest Asean meeting, in Bali this week, Burma’s proposed chairmanship in 2014 was not on the official agenda. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has yet to visit Burma to assess first-hand its readiness to head Asean. He does not have to go now, because reports coming out of the country are far from pleasant.

Quite frankly, the Bali meeting showed that Asean as a whole is not certain if Burma is ready to be its host. When the new semi-civilian government came to power early this year, there were unexpectedly high hopes that Burma would change for the better and become more open. All the generals, including former head of state Than Shwe, were supposedly stepping down and staying away from power. Elected politicians were to run the country. Asean and Burma, according to this script, would then be united and live happily ever after, with Burma chairing Asean in 2014. The notorious seven-point roadmap would be complete.

Unfortunately, the real script is somewhat different.

Burma remains closed and voices of dissent are not tolerated. Human rights violations and oppression continue unabated. Obviously, there are countries and people who think that respect for human rights is of little importance. They feel it is better to move on with the current government, especially after the election, just pouring in aid and other assistance to help the suffering Burmese people. During the Nargis cyclone disaster, the then military regime benefited tremendously from the generosity of foreign donors, who flooded the country with money and aid. Now, Naypyidaw continues to play this card that ongoing sanctions and Western pressure are destroying the lives of ordinary Burmese, who suffer more than others. The generals do not suffer so much, because they have money and powerful accomplices. In response, some donors prefer to target their aid specifically at the country’s ordinary folk.

It is commendable that the US House of Representatives has renewed American sanctions against Burma. Indeed, sanctions remain the only instrument that can be used against the regime. The US sanctions will continue as long as there is no clear sign that Burma’s estimated 2,300 political prisoners will be freed, or that a genuine dialogue for national reconciliation between the government and opposition parties, including minorities, will be launched. The current administration in Burma must realise that tangible actions are needed before Asean awards it the chairmanship for 2014. Otherwise, Asean as a whole will suffer.

To back up its grand, ambitious slogans about upgrading Asean’s profile in the global community, the grouping must take into account international sentiment on Burma, especially that of its dialogue partners.

It bears repeating here that since joining Asean in 1997, Burma has never once responded positively to an Asean request or bowed to peer pressure. When it appeared to do so, it did so according to its own political calculations. The Burmese generals know that assertiveness and an unyielding attitude will always win in Asean, as no other members can match their audacity and persist in their demands.

The rest of Asean thinks in terms of the common good for the grouping. This being the case, it is better for Asean to be patient and make sure that the Asean chair in 2014 is a respectable one that will attract the participation of world leaders, rather than chase them away. –The Nation