Despite U.S. Opposition, SE Asian Nations Reward Burma for Limited Reforms

By Patrick Goodenough | November 17, 2011 | 4:56 AM EST

A Buddhist monk stands on a balcony of a pagoda displaying banners reading “We want freedom,” “Free all political prisoners” and “Stop civil war now” as pedestrians pass by, in Mandalay, Burma on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. (AP Photo)

(Editor’s note: Updates and adds response from U.S. Campaign for Burma)

( - Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Thursday agreed to allow Burma to chair the 10-member bloc in 2014, overruling objections by the United States and others who argue that the move is premature.

ASEAN leaders meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali made the decision just two days before President Obama will join them and other regional leaders for the annual East Asia Summit, the first to be attended by a U.S. president.

The country that holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN also hosts the East Asia Summit, a forum first held six years ago, and now comprising ASEAN's 10 members plus another eight countries, including the U.S., China, Russia and India.

Thursday's decision by ASEAN therefore means that the whoever is in the White House in 2014 will have to choose between visiting and being hosted by what has been called one of the world's most repressive regimes, or stay away from the East Asia Summit in 2014, just three years after the Obama administration declared a foreign policy "pivot" towards Asia.

U.S. Campaign for Burma executive director Aung Din said ASEAN would have to take “full responsibility” for its decision.

If Burma does not meet conditions laid down by the international community, then the U.S. should boycott all meetings held in the Burmese administrative capital, Naypyidaw and encourage like-minded countries to do the same, he told

“This message should be made loud and clear to ASEAN leaders and Burma's president Thein Sein by President Obama during the East Asia Summit.”

Aung Din, himself a former political prisoner, said the conditions the government must meet include releasing all political prisoners and allowing all Burmese to participate in the political process freely; creating through broad dialogue a political system guaranteeing democracy, human rights, rule of law, an independent judiciary and ethnic minorities rights; and allowing international humanitarian agencies unhindered access to people affected by civil wars and natural disasters.

Burma's military rulers a year ago held the country's first elections since 1989, a controversial exercise that handed a landslide win to proxies of the junta. Since then the government has enacted some cautious reforms and freed some political prisoners, including the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But more than 1,600 political prisoners remain incarcerated, and conflict persists in ethnic minority areas of the country, which the military junta renamed Myanmar in 1989. Western governments are also unhappy about Burma's growing relationship with North Korea (Assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell told U.S. lawmakers last March ties between the two countries, especially Pyongyang's arms sales to Burma, were "of enormous concern.")

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi talks to journalists at her National League for Democracy party's headquarters on Monday, Nov. 14, 2011. Suu Kyi said the government had taken positive steps toward reform over the past year but that more needs to be done, including freeing hundreds more political prisoners. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

In a speech in the Australian parliament on Thursday, Obama said human rights violations continued in Burma and that the U.S. would "continue to speak clearly" about actions needed if Burma is to have "a better relationship with the United States."

The U.S. government is not alone is arguing that it is too early to allow Burma to chair ASEAN. The European Union has said the same thing, and a "Myanmar caucus" of lawmakers from ASEAN countries called this week for the decision to be held off until further changes occur.

"It is clear that the current government of Myanmar lacks the will to push through the necessary reforms," the caucus president, Indonesian lawmaker Eva Kusuma Sundari said in a statement.

She said it would be wrong for ASEAN leaders "to conclude that further incentives should be given to Myanmar in reward for superficial reforms."

Nonetheless ASEAN foreign ministers, swayed by the argument that allowing Burma to preside over the bloc would accelerate the reform process, recommended that heads of government approve the decision at their Bali summit which began Thursday.

"By making Myanmar the chair of ASEAN we are putting on Myanmar ever more higher expectations to continue the process of change," Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said earlier this week.

Human Rights Watch said Wednesday ASEAN should insist that Burma meets specified benchmarks as a condition for allowing it to chair the organization. They should include the immediate release of political prisoners, the repeal of repressive laws, and end to abuses against ethnic minorities and accountability for perpetrators of war crimes, it said.

Previous US boycott worked

ASEAN, which operates a policy of strict non-interference in members' domestic affairs, has long demonstrated a reluctance to back sanctions or take other firm steps against Burma, which was admitted to the four decade-old grouping in 1997.

Burma was in line to chair ASEAN in 2006 -- rotation follows alphabetical order -- but the year before the Bush administration made its opposition to the move clear when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became the first secretary of state in 21 years to skip the annual ASEAN summit.

The signal was understood; ASEAN members fretted about Western boycotts and Burma subsequently agreed to forgo its turn at the helm.

Until last year's election, Burma had been under military rule since 1962. In 1990 the junta allowed elections but overturned the result after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) easily won.

In the run-up to the Nov. 2010 election the regime promulgated regulations including one stating that no-one with a criminal conviction would be allowed to participate in party politics. As intended, the requirement disqualified Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time and had spent three-quarters of the previous 20 years in detention.

Another regulation required parties to meet specific registration conditions or face automatic shutdown. The NLD chose to boycott the election, and the junta formally abolished it for failing to register.

Shortly after the election, which was marred by vote-rigging and saw the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party win almost 80 percent of the contested parliamentary seats, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

Last week the government amended the electoral law to remove some of the barriers to NLD participation in future elections. Party leaders are reportedly divided on the issue, and are expected to decide Friday whether to reregister in order to contest a series of upcoming by-elections. A decision in favor could pave the way to Suu Kyi's return to politics.

Early this month U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner and U.S. Special Envoy for Burma Derek Mitchell visited Burma for talks with government officials, opposition figures and others.

Citing that visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Hawaii last week that "it appears that there are real changes taking place on the ground, and we support these early efforts at reform. We want to see the people of Burma able to participate fully in the political life of their own country."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow