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Burma’s Asean Chairmanship up in the Air

By The Irrawaddy  •  May 6, 2011

The decision of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on whether Burma will be the allowed to become the chair of the organization in 2014 has been deferred until later in the year. Asean is in no rush to approve the Burmese bid to become head of Asean, the Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa told The Irrawaddy a day before the latest regional summit starts in Jakarta.

As the current chair of Asean, Indonesia expects to first make a fact-finding mission to the country. Asean will only consider Burma’s application to chair the organization after that. Natalegawa said he intended to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during that visit, which is likely to place in the coming weeks.

The new quasi-civilian government in Burma is desperate to get Asean’s approval, and being accepted as chairman of the organization would certainly give them additional credibility.

Burma—under the old military regime—skipped its turn to act as chair of Asean in 2006, in the face strong international pressure led by Western countries, especially the US, to have the organization disown its difficult ally because of human rights abuses and the lack of progress towards democracy.

Asean has no intentions of being rushed into anything that might give the new government any form of legitimacy, Natalegawa said in an interview ahead of the 18th Asean summit. “We will not be pressured into bestowing credibility on the new regime without assessing first-hand the changes,” he said.

The new government and the civilian administration are definitely developments, Natalegawa said, before adding that it would be necessary to digest these developments before considering Burma’s bid to be the Asean chair. “There is a process to go through, involving procedures and technicalities,” he said.

The Burmese government has understood all along that a fact-finding mission had to be conducted before Burma’s candidacy for the chairmanship could be considered. This was made clear to Burma’s foreign minister when he attended the special Asean foreign ministers meeting in Bangkok last month.

The new Thein Sein regime is anxious to have Aean give it legitimacy by agreeing to Asean becoming its chairman in 2014. The government recently asked the Indonesian foreign minister to visit Burma on May 3—the beginning of this week.

“Clearly I could not go at such short notice, and there is too much to be done here in the lead up to the summit,” Natalegawa said. “Also I was concerned to avoid being used by the Myanmar [Burmese] government for its own purposes.”

Regarding a trip to Burma that he had planned to make in January that was postponed by the regime because they were too busy forming the new government, Natalegawa smiled. “I know, I know—they are always busy,” he said.

At their retreat in Bogor in late January, the foreign ministers told Burma that the visit by the Asean delegation led by Indonesia was essential. This was reinforced last month when the new Burmese foreign minister formally asked his Asean counterparts to agree to Burma becoming the chair in 2014.

“It will be a fact-finding mission,” Natalegawa said. “We need to see what changes have been introduced by the new civilian government and assess whether they are in a position to host the summit in three years time.”

It remains to be seen what concessions Asean and the Indonesian foreign minister in particular will try to extract from the Burmese government, but Natalegawa said that it was important to avoid “lecturing, bullying and threatening, as that will only be counter-productive. Instead, we have to encourage and coax them.”

This is an attitude shared by other Asean foreign ministers, especially those from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The organization’s original five members—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines—are often more openly critical of the Burmese regime, which has shown little interest in following Asean’s advice.

But with a new civilian government and some civilians in leading advisory roles, the Burmese leaders may be more accommodating than in the past, according to Asian diplomats. The hope is that Thein Sein will be more approachable and accommodating.

“We have no option but to continue to engage Burma’s leaders,” Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, told The Irrawaddy recently in Bangkok. “The situation for the Burmese people would be a lot worse if we hadn’t.” But privately he confided that change in Burma was going to take a very, very long time.

The Indonesian foreign minister is an excellent envoy to visit Burma. All last year before the Burmese regime held the Nov. 7 election he worked tirelessly to get the junta to accept election monitors—or “visitors,” as he liked to call them—to experience the election.

He failed of course, but remained optimistic to the very last minute. “We understand how hard the transition to democracy is; we have valuable lessons to share with the Burmese government,” he continues to say.

Natalegawa told The Irrawaddy that he intended to try to see Aung San Suu Kyi during any future agreed trip to Burma. “That is certainly my intention,” he said, though he stopped short of saying it would be a prerequisite for the visit.

When the Thai prime minister was the chair of Asean—before the election—he tried to visit Burma several times. But when he insisted on seeing Suu Kyi, his requests to visit—even as the Asean chairman—were rejected. It was only after he dropped his request that he was allowed to make the trip.

Since then, Suu Kyi has been released after nearly eight years under house arrest. This was the third time she had been in detention since 1989, having spent some 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest, more than half of that time in virtual solitary confinement.

Much may now ride on Natalegawa’s forthcoming visit to Burma. Preliminary discussions were held in Jakarta during President Thein Sein’s state visit to Indonesia on Thursday.

View the original article here.

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This post is in: ASEAN

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