Burma Goes on a Charm Offensive

Burma has begun a diplomatic charm offensive in an effort to get international approval for the cosmetic changes the administration has introduced under the guise of a new civilian government.

Political power was officially transferred to the new President Thein Sein a month ago, ending more than two decades of a military dictatorship. The new administration's first priority is to reduce its international isolation.

"The Thein Sein regime is desperate for international recognition," said Win Min, a Burmese academic currently based in the United States. "It's crucial for them to gain credibility and a measure of respectability for their new so-called civilian government." The longer-term goal though, is to end sanctions.

But the diplomatic offensive will inevitably increase tensions between most Western countries, which still support sanctions against the regime, and the bulk of Asian nations, who are keen to integrate Burma into the region. The initiatives are likely to intensify divisions between Asia and the West – especially the US – on how to cope with Burma's strategic aims.

As soon as he was sworn in as president, Thein Sein wrote to the ASEAN secretariat asking the organization to accept Burma's bid to become chairman in 2014. In 2004, Burma gave up on the chance to become chairman in 2006 amid international pressure on the group to reject Burma's turn. Now the government wants ASEAN's approval at the forthcoming summit in Indonesia next month.

But some of its neighbors are wary of being used as a pawn in Burma's global mission to prove that the new government really is different than a naked military dictatorship. Burma's desire to take over the chairmanship of ASEAN is being seen by some in the organization as a possible bargaining chip to extract some meaningful change and concessions from its most troublesome member.

Burma has been a thorn in ASEAN's side ever since it joined the body 1997, and has been a major obstacle to smoother and deeper relations with its strategic partners, especially Europe and the United States. The new quasi-civilian government has only complicated the situation.

Beijing has warmly welcomed the new regime – and was the first to send a top political figure to the capital to endorse the changes. Jia Qinglin, the fourth most important man on the communist party's political Bureau, arrived in the Burmese capital just two days after Thein Sein became president. Interestingly, he did not meet former junta boss General Than Shwe during the visit. Jia reportedly brought more than a billion dollars in aid and soft-loans for development and military hardware. But for the new political leadership in the capital Naypyidaw it is ASEAN's recognition it craves most.

In 2004, the ASEAN foreign ministers breathed a collective sigh of relief when Burma made a series of excuses to get out of the 2006 chair and save face – as they had been under international pressure to send a strong message to the junta that real change was essential if they were to take the seat.

At the ASEAN summit in Hanoi last year, Thein Sein – then under Than Shwe's instructions – pushed for Burma to be given the chairmanship in 2011. Looking forward to the new civilian government, the top military rulers thought that the chairmanship, coming simultaneously with the cosmetic change to constitutional rule, would send a strong message to the international community. But Indonesia, Cambodia and Brunei were conferred as the next three chairs – so the earliest Burma could expect to head the organization is in 2014.

The Hanoi decision was a clear message to Burma that concrete change was expected, ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan told Asia Sentinel in Hanoi after the meeting. "ASEAN is very much interested in the peaceful national reconciliation in Myanmar and whatever happens there will have implications in ASEAN, positive or negative," he said.

Now ASEAN is in a quandary. Its members understand that the elections were fraudulent and they are left again to rue their unconditional incorporation of Burma into ASEAN in 1997, a move pushed by Malaysia at the time as a way to celebrate the alliance's 30th anniversary by incorporating all ten Southeast Asian nations into the body.

The official ASEAN position has always been to give the Burmese government the benefit of the doubt. So how can they publicly criticize Burma's political charade, while keeping whatever influence they might have with the new regime?

"We have to continue to engage with the Myanmar government," Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told a gathering of foreign correspondents recently.

Indonesia and Thailand have taken the recent lead to coax change out of the military-based government, according to Asian diplomats. Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa wanted to visit Burma after the election and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi last year as an ASEAN envoy – Indonesia is the current chair. But the planned January visit was postponed indefinitely.

With Thein Sein bidding to take the chairmanship in 2014 and the country pushing for an answer at next month's summit, Natalegawa's visit may be pushed up. The newly appointed Burmese foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin was in Bangkok last week for a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers and he pushed Burma's application.

Before ASEAN makes a decision, he was told, an ASEAN delegation should be allowed to visit Naypyidaw to assess the political situation and the capital's preparedness to host meetings. In traditional Burmese style, the foreign minister could not commit his country to such a visit, but promised to take the matter back to the capital.

Still, most countries in the region feel that it is better to have Burma inside the organization rather than isolated outside and forced increasingly into Beijing's arms. When former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad sponsored Burma's inclusion in ASEAN he made it clear that the aim was to influence Burma as a friend not a foe. The move was premature, former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told me a year later in an interview. "We have not been able to influence Burma very much since it joined, contrary to our original expectations," he said.

"Bullying, coaxing and admonishing them has had no effect," an Asia diplomat with long contact with the top Burmese leadership said. "If we push too hard they will simply close the door on us, or worse leave the organization unilaterally."

The situation is a mess. Washington has already chipped into the controversy, indicating it would be reluctant to work closely with Burma as ASEAN's chair. "Obviously, we would have concerns about Burma in any kind of leadership role because of their poor human rights record," the State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, told reporters earlier this week.

For ASEAN, there is no easy way out of this diplomatic muddle.