Burma Partnership, Strengthening Cooperation for a Free Burma
Signup Now!
Join our mailing list for latest news and information about Burma.

ASEAN’s new approach to Myanmar is nothing new

Originally appeared in The Jakarta Post

January 20, 2011

ASEAN’s foreign ministers just completed their two-day retreat in Lombok on Jan. 17, wherein Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa outlined the nation’s agenda and priorities for ASEAN as it assumes the association’s rotating chair.

He touched almost every issue of paramount importance to ASEAN, including the need to accelerate its community-building process, the imperative of finding a peaceful solution to the South China Sea dispute, the importance of East Asia Summit (EAS), and the question of ASEAN’s place in the world in the post-2015 period.

The most contentious and sensitive issue of all, Myanmar, was also touched upon and discussed.

Indonesia is of the opinion that it is time for the world — especially the West — to renew engagement with Myanmar by lifting sanctions against the nation. This position, unsurprisingly, was welcomed and embraced by other ASEAN countries.

Does ASEAN’s position signify a new approach to the Myanmar problem? It is fair to say that there is nothing new in this position. ASEAN has long argued that economic sanctions against Myanmar would never force the country to change. ASEAN believes that change, especially democratic change, cannot be imposed from outside. It has to take place within the country itself. In that context, external sanctions will not do much to bring change to Myanmar.

The recent call made by ASEAN for the West — especially the EU, Canada and the US — to consider lifting sanctions can also be seen as an ASEAN’s attempt to formulate a new approach toward the Myanmar problem. Three reasons can be put forward in this regard.

First, the call was made within a new context in Myanmar’s domestic politics. As Marty argued during the retreat, the international community should take note of two events in Myanmar: the general elections and the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Despite the fact that the general elections have been described as neither fair nor free, it seems that ASEAN intends to explore whatever opportunities — no matter how slim — that may arise in the post-election period. With the release of Suu Kyi, ASEAN also hopes that she will be able, and allowed, to participate in the process of finding a solution to the political impasse that has beset Myanmar for decades.

Second, ASEAN has long admitted that both ASEAN’s strategy of engagement and its policy of sanctions have failed. The position adopted during the retreat reflects an agreement to combine both approaches.

In this context, it is importance to note that Marty also emphasized that “lifting the bans and reconciliation should go hand in hand”. This should be seen as a warning to the junta in Nyapidaw that ASEAN’s willingness to help Myanmar is not a blank check. In other words, ASEAN will not blindly support Myanmar if the junta tries to block or delay an inclusive reconciliation process.

Third, the call also came about after a review by the US of its Myanmar policy under President Barack Obama. In September 2009, the US government announced that it would start engaging Myanmar’s government while retaining sanctions: a policy of “pragmatic engagement”. In effect, however, this new policy also constitutes an attempt to combine both engagement and sanctions, bringing the US’ position closer to that of ASEAN.

Indeed, if one wants to try a new approach towards Myanmar, it is time to go beyond the engagement-sanction debate. Regardless whether ASEAN’s dialogue partners will follow ASEAN’s call to lift the bans, ASEAN itself needs to formulate a more coherent and detailed Myanmar strategy, including how to engage without giving incentives to the junta to strengthen its grip on power by excluding and suppressing other forces in the country.

This is obviously a difficult proposition. However, ASEAN can begin its new approach by devising a three-pronged strategy. First, ASEAN should start devising a framework to make it possible for all major stakeholders to start reconciliation talks and discussions on democratization.

Second, ASEAN should have a common platform on how to encourage the junta to start a meaningful and inclusive economic development program. At the same time, ASEAN also needs to start helping the people of Myanmar directly through grassroots-based programs such as community development, humanitarian assistance and capacity building.

Third, ASEAN should also devise a platform on how to engage the wider Burmese community, to include both the new political elite (such as the “Parliament”) and civil society organizations.

Indonesia, as the chair of ASEAN, is in a position to devise such a new ASEAN Myanmar strategy.

Otherwise, the international community will see the Lombok agreement on Myanmar as another move by ASEAN to engage in rhetoric without substance. This is a challenge for Indonesia’s chairmanship and leadership in ASEAN. Hopefully Indonesia is more than ready to answer that challenge.

View original post.

Tags: , , , ,

This post is in: ASEAN

Related Posts
Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice
Myanmar’s New Dawn :Opportunities for Aung San Suu Kyi and U.S.-Myanmar Relations
Expanding People’ Solidarity for a Just and Inclusive ASEAN Community
Civil society launches #FreeThe5KH campaign in support of the imprisoned ADHOC staff and NEC official
Myanmar logging ban a major step to forest sector reform