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Black Sheep

Asean is embarrassed by the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. But Burma is unlikely to clean up its act

By Rodney Tasker and Bertil Lintner/BANGKOK

You can be pretty sure that something unusual is going on when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sides with Western democracies in a dispute involving an Asian neighbour. But that is what happened on July 20 when Mahathir warned that Burma's continued detention of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi might ultimately lead to the country's expulsion from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Suu Kyi was taken into "protective custody" by Burmese authorities on May 30, an act that soon grabbed the attention of the United States, the European Union and Japan. The U.S. on July 28 clamped tighter sanctions on Burma than had been in place before, Japan suspended all aid and the EU said it was considering similar measures.

It is likely that Mahathir, who championed Burma's entry into Asean in 1997, was really just venting his frustration about what might seem like a betrayal. Few Asean observers think that Burma would actually be kicked out of the group.

Still, Mahathir and Burma's other Asean partners are smarting from the critical international attention, which probably explains why the 10-country grouping broke from its traditional non-interference in each other's internal affairs by calling for Suu Kyi's release. A week later, Thailand offered a "road map" designed to help Rangoon achieve stability and even democracy.

"The generals' misrule in Burma damages Asean's interests," says a Western diplomat in Rangoon. Sunai Phasuk, spokesman for regional human-rights organization Forum Asia, sums up an increasingly common opinion in the region: "Burma is Asean's shame."

Perhaps, but there seem to be multiple motives for the unusual intervention by Burma's neighbours. Thailand's proposed road map, which diplomats say has not actually been put down on paper, was basically just a set of ideas conveyed to Burma's Win Aung on his visit to Bangkok on August 1.

Cynics say the road map is most likely an effort by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to lift his own profile. Under this theory, with Mahathir planning to step down as Malaysia's prime minister in October and Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew increasingly in the background on Asean matters, Thaksin may see an opportunity to fill a leadership vacuum.

A Bangkok-based senior Western diplomat, however, cautions: "I wouldn't dismiss the road map as some cynical, publicity-grabbing move." Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow insists that the road map "is not an academic exercise. We are concerned about the situation [in Burma], and we want to see real and lasting reconciliation and democratization."

As Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai has pointed out, instability in Burma could lead to a further wave of illegal Burmese immigrants entering Thailand. There are an estimated 1 million such Burmese already in Thailand. Thaksin, in a July 26 radio talk, also noted the huge amount of Burmese methamphetamine drugs smuggled into Thailand. Continued instability could easily make the problem worse.

There are other legitimate concerns as well. Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia are, along with Britain, the top four investors in Burma. That means these Asean stalwarts have a critical financial stake in the stability and progress of Burma, not just an interest in the bad publicity that Rangoon is attracting.


All of which is likely to have little impact on the generals who run Burma. There is scant likelihood that Rangoon will release Suu Kyi on any timetable but its own or start moves towards democracy any time soon. As Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung said while visiting Bangkok on August 1: "We need time to work things out. What I can say now is the problem is very complicated and we can't rush into any conclusion."

So despite what Forum Asia's Sunai calls "a rather drastic change in Asean's position," it seems Burma's ruling junta is not about to grant any concession on behalf of Suu Kyi. Thailand's fear is that this intransigence will only make the situation worse. After all, Thailand was not long ago a country where generals frequently took political matters into their own hands. Bangkok knows the dangers.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, August 14, 2003

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