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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

In Everyone's Interest

Home issues shape U.S., ASEAN policies on Myanmar

BUNN NAGARA, the author, heads Geopolicy Research, an independent consultancy based in Kuala Lumpur


WHEN WASHINGTON ANNOUNCED SANCTIONS against Myanmar, ASEAN pundits rushed to speculate on the implications as if the bilateral affair determined ASEAN policy on Yangon. The issue which ruffled U.S. feathers was ASEAN's imminent admission of Myanmar together with Laos and Cambodia, which might be construed as legitimizing and rewarding a repressive regime. Few commentators appreciated ASEAN's resolve in admitting Myanmar, the limits of U.S. disaffection with Yangon, or the weight of everyone's domestic concerns on Myanmar policy.

Washington's angst against perceived human rights violations abroad is familiar. After castigating then-President George Bush for "coddling dictators in Beijing," candidate Bill Clinton became a president who decided instead to "engage" China. Fresh from "Asiagate" the same season, the White House could not afford to entertain Myanmar also. Besides, Myanmar's prospective market was no match for China's.

Last year, Sen. (now Defense Secretary) William Cohen co-sponsored a bill allowing for sanctions against Myanmar should widespread repression escalate. On the bill's own terms, sanctions were questionable. One recent incident symbolizing for Washington a deterioration in human rights -- the return to house arrest of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- occurred last November, half a year before. But weeks of debate were to culminate in the April decision to implement sanctions in May. Since Clinton could not do business with Myanmar, the human rights groups "won."

Yet the sanctions were only a sop to anti-SLORC lobbyists. Non-American companies were unaffected. Nor were the sanctions retroactive, so U.S. companies already in Myanmar could remain. These were multi-purpose sanctions: good relations with ASEAN were maintained, the White House looked better for not coddling SLORC, and U.S. firms were not completely excluded -- thus avoiding another costly experience like the embargo against Vietnam.

But the U.S. is not alone in letting domestic concerns rule Myanmar policy. One of the pillars of ASEAN is the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. This agnosticism approaches a diplomatic indifference, now wedded to an indiscriminate inclusiveness for all Southeast Asian states within the ASEAN family. Sensing this, Washington did not bother pushing too hard for ASEAN reciprocity on Myanmar. Vietnam's 1979 invasion of Cambodia triggered an ASEAN rebuff of Hanoi alongside recognition of the exiled CGDK coalition, including the internationally reviled Khmer Rouge. ASEAN's principle of non-interference ends at the twin parapets of national sovereignty and territorial integrity (understandably, with niggling, multiple territorial disputes festering).

ASEAN governments are not comfortable with judging their neighbors on domestic issues, much less with exacting punishment. Indonesia in particular would not be amused when parallel situations can be drawn with Myanmar. ASEAN is a cluster of governments with different styles, traditions and degrees of popular accountability. When Ferdinand Marcos stole the 1986 Philippine election, Malaysia's oppositionists lobbied to withdraw recognition. Malaysia instead adopted a wait-and-see approach, switching recognition to the new government as soon as it established itself. A member of the Malaysian cabinet conceded privately that whatever one's reservations about the Marcos regime, Malaysia could not act unilaterally against a sitting government next door.

Reporters asked how Malaysia could reject sanctions against Myanmar after maintaining them against apartheid South Africa. Malaysia's domestic tasks have been monumental: not just to succeed in development and avoid repeating the race riots of 1969 by managing ethnic relations peaceably in a country of large minorities, but to do so with an affirmative action program for a small majority. Malaysia's primary domestic concern has long been national unity through racial and religious harmony, or at least the avoidance of ethnic bigotry. Under the Internal Security Act, a considerable number of people have been held over the past decade not for political differences, but for racial or religious chauvinism. Thus Malaysia's extra-regional foreign policy orientation, where ASEAN consensus was immaterial: a visceral revulsion against apartheid, "ethnic cleansing" and occupied Palestine.

ASEAN is less a communion of peoples or even a regional market than a group of neighboring governments anxiously needing to work comfortably with one another. The NLD therefore cannot expect moral or material support from ASEAN in wresting power from SLORC, short of Yangon invading a neighbor. But if the NLD succeeds SLORC in an internal maneuver, it may find that the new Myanmar could be received as a more valued partner. It is implicit in the ASEAN formula that once a working comfort level is achieved between member states, much else in regional good neighborliness follows. This is why ASEAN believes Myanmar, whatever its politics, would make for better dialogue as a member than if it were not.


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