Burma Gets Away With It Again at ASEAN

A year ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations managed to cover itself with ignominy by canceling its annual meeting in Cebu allegedly because an overhyped typhoon splashed seawater on the Sherpas setting it up — or because Islamic terrorists might have been lurking. This year, the association seems to have covered itself with something like boils and scales instead, with a series of diplomatic gaffes that leaves the 10-country organization looking foolish.

At least a year ago Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was worried about Muslim militant interference. This year’s ASEAN meeting in Singapore was expected to be a pro forma opportunity for the association satraps to enjoy a bit of golf, pose for a few pictures (they did) and sign an agreement for a new charter (they did). But then there was Burma.

The document the delegates were there to sign has been under consideration since the 1970s and is designed to turn ASEAN into an organization that would be held accountable for the treaties and agreements it signs and establishes enforceable financial, trade and environmental rules. It would also establish a regional human-rights mechanism that even before it came into effect has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness.

In an indication of how much Burma was going to get away with, when the delegates showed up, Singapore banned the standard pennants that delegate cars fly, presumably to prevent Singapore’s ever dangerously anarchistic legions of protesters from flinging Molotov cocktails at, say, the Brunei delegation. It certainly couldn’t have been concern over, say, Burma's military rulers, including Thein Sein, the prime minister, who had the gall to show up after a brutal crackdown in September that, by the junta’s own reckoning, killed 15 non-violent protesters. Independent organizations put the death toll far higher.

In the event, three protesters did show up to protest Burma’s inclusion in the conclave and ASEAN’s lack of resolve to condemn the junta. According to the Bloomberg wire service, the protesters were followed by 19 reporters and photographers in an area surrounded by 1,000 armed police and soldiers. In Singapore a protest gathering of more than four people must be approved by police. The Singapore Three thus just squeaked under the wire. Elsewhere, nine students in red shirts walked up the Orchard Road shopping strip, in small groups to skirt strict laws against public protests.

“A lot of people wanted to come, but they were afraid of the repercussions,” said Daniel Babiak, a student from the National University of Singapore.

Not to worry. Inside the halls, ASEAN was distinguishing itself with even more cautious behavior than it did a year ago when it was worried about either the typhoon or the Islamic militants. First, the leaders canceled a briefing by United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari on the Burmese crisis, apparently on the objections of the Burmese, an indication that the murder of scores of non-violent civilians protesting arbitrary fivefold energy prices was nobody else’s business. The briefing was originally set up by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, this year’s chairman of ASEAN. Singapore’s state-owned businesses have extensive interests in Burma.

“The briefing is off,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told Agence France-Presse. “Myanmar feels that they deal with the UN and it is their own domestic matter. This evening, Myanmar objected and we base our decisions on consensus.”

Thein Sein was previously expected to face harsh questioning at an informal dinner meeting. Instead, he escaped without the opprobrium of the Gambari briefing, scheduled for ASEAN leaders plus their counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

Thein Sein "made clear that the situation in Myanmar was a domestic Myanmar thing and that Myanmar was fully capable of handling the situation by itself," Lee Hsien Loong told a press conference.

Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win said his country would this week sign the ASEAN charter. "We agree with the charter," Nyan Win told reporters after regional ministers formally adopted the charter Monday. "We will sign, sure."

That at least got the Philippines upset, warning that the island nation is unlikely to ratify a landmark Southeast Asian charter on financial, trade and environmental rules for its members unless Burma restores democracy.

"We have a very good charter. I think everybody should be happy. It's quite balanced," senior Burmese diplomat U Aung Bwa told reporters.

A frustrated Susan Schwab, the United States’ top trade official, warned ASEAN that timidity in the face of the Burmese junta jeopardized progress on expanding a trade and investment pact signed last year with the US. ASEAN, she said, "has a special responsibility when it comes to the situation in Burma. The reputation and credibility of ASEAN as an organization has been called into question because of the situation in Burma."

The leaders took several hours to draft a joint statement over dinner, according to AFP. They could be heard squabbling over the wording until just before midnight, as the microphone at a nearby podium was inadvertently turned on.