Burma’s post election implications for Southeast Asia

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By Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation (Thailand)/Asia News Network

During the visit to Nayphidaw early last month, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva repeated to the Burmese leaders the ASEAN offer to dispatch a team to observe Sunday’s election. They dismissed the idea outright emphasizing that Burma has lots of experience with the election. Then, at the Hanoi summit, Abhisit raised the issue once again urging Burma to work together with ASEAN to bridge the gap of expectation within the international community. Both Indonesian and Filipino leaders also echoed the Thai concerns by reiterating the same ASEAN plan but this time with the participation of Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan to join the ASEAN diplomats inside Burma. That offer was turned down. Ten days before the election, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win also declared in Hanoi that the diplomats and U.N. agencies, up to five persons, could go anywhere they wished during the election day. As it turned out, several diplomatic missions including ASEAN, have difficulties in accessing certain constituencies, some of them even in Rangoon, citing security and logistics. Representatives of the United Nations and the U.S. chose to stay away from the regime-sponsored electoral visits while some EU countries decided to join. Only the Thai delegation encountered no problem in visiting Shan State, Karenni State and Sagaing Region. Several ASEAN members are planning to issue a statement on the election pending the progress report from the field trips of their diplomats. Judging from the ASEAN-Burma pattern of diplomatic engagements coupling with extremely high tolerance of noncompliance on the latter since the 1997 admission, ASEAN would have no other choice but to welcome the sham election and express the hope that it would represent the first stepping stone for further positive developments inside the country. Ironically, for the majority of ASEAN, it was a huge relief as the organization’s biggest albatross has now been removed. ASEAN can now say what is going on inside Burma is the internal affairs. ASEAN knows full well that Burma has never yielded to demands through peer pressure especially from the core ASEAN members. After all, it was the hush-hush decision of ASEAN to admit Burma on a fast track to counter China’s growing influence.

When Nyi Nyi Thun, the former Burmese ambassador to Indonesia made a surprise announcement on 7 July 1995 at the ASEAN Secretariat that Burma was ready to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, ASEAN moved quickly to facilitate the admission thinking it would help end the country’s isolation and political quagmire. Burma joined ASEAN two years later, shattering predictions that its admission would take at least five years. Cambodia was last to join in 1999. After 27 years of no-contact, Burma’s interest in ASEAN generated a flurry of diplomatic activities. But Burma was quick to establish the rule of engagement with ASEAN. The first test between ASEAN and Burma occurred on July 19, 1995 when an attempt was made for the opposition leader Aung Sann Suu Kyi, who was freed a week earlier, to meet with the Rangoon-based ASEAN diplomats.