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Myanmar regime belongs in the dog house

Posted by theonlinecitizen on June 6, 2007

By Gerald Giam

The extension of Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment on 27 May 2007 was a widely expected move by the country’s military government which has already kept her under detention for most of the 17 years since she won national elections by a landslide in 1990.

While Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia have voiced their dissatisfaction with the lack of democratic progress in Myanmar, there is still a lot more that the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can and should do to push the recalcitrant regime towards the path of democracy.

ASEAN needs to send a strong and unambiguous message of disapproval to Myanmar or risk becoming a laughing stock, irrelevant to the rest of the developed world.


Myanmar (also known as Burma) was admitted as a member of ASEAN in 1997 with the support of the grouping’s most influential members — Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. This was despite protests from Western governments and Aung San Suu Kyi herself that admitting Myanmar was tantamount to endorsing the junta’s despotic ways. However, ASEAN had its reasons for admitting Myanmar, despite the latter’s dismal human rights record.

Firstly, ASEAN governments saw the expansion of the grouping from six original members (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) to 10 members (with the addition of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) as a way to increase its attractiveness as an investment destination.

With over 500 million people and a combined gross domestic product of over US$685 billion, ASEAN-10 would like the world to believe that it is an attractive alternative to China and India.

Secondly, ASEAN felt it was imperative to engage Myanmar, to prevent it from drawing too close to China, which ASEAN countries have always been wary of. China views Myanmar as a country of strategic significance, providing it with much needed access to the Indian Ocean.

For Singapore, which pooh-poohs abstract notions of human rights and democracy in favour of hard-nosed economic pragmatism, Myanmar provides a sizeable export market, particularly for its military equipment and ordnance. (Singapore has long been a major supplier of arms to Myanmar.

Some analysts have speculated that the admission of Myanmar was the ASEAN leaders’ way of asserting the supposed superiority of “Asian values” and a rejection of Western governments’ attempts to impose “alien” values of liberal democracy on the region. At that time, Southeast Asian economies were brimming with confidence and optimism on the wings of phenomenal growth rates over the previous decade.

In an almost Titanic-like turn of events, however, all this came crumbling down just a few weeks after Myanmar was admitted to ASEAN. The sudden devaluation of the Thai baht led to a regional economic meltdown known as the Asian Financial Crisis.

To garner support Myanmar’s admission, ASEAN governments promoted the idea that “constructive engagement” of the regime rather than isolation and sanctions would be a more effective way of prodding the generals to behave according to internationally-accepted norms.

Ten years on, constructive engagement of Myanmar has proven to be an abject failure. The level of oppression of the opposition and people in Myanmar has increased, rather than abated, since its admission into ASEAN.

The Myanmar thorn

Since coming into the ASEAN fold, Myanmar has been nothing but a thorn in ASEAN’s relations with the European Union (EU) and the United States. Because of Myanmar‘s membership in ASEAN, the EU has downgraded numerous ASEAN-EU meetings which could have greatly enhanced ASEAN’s political and economic relations with the world’s most important trading block.

Myanmar has also proven to be a significant impediment to talks on an ASEAN-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA). It is virtually impossible for the EU to consider an FTA with ASEAN while maintaining sanctions against Myanmar for human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, a trade and investment pact with US was postponed numerous times because of Washington‘s reluctance to have anything to do with Myanmar‘s generals. Eventually in August 2006, the US did sign the Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA) with ASEAN. Unfortunately, the deal had been watered down from a more formal “agreement” to an “arrangement” because of Myanmar.

In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice broke with tradition and skipped the annual security meeting known as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This move was seen as a signal of Washington‘s displeasure over the lack of democratic progress in Myanmar, which was scheduled to take over the rotating leadership of ASEAN the next year.

Perhaps the biggest threat that Myanmar poses to ASEAN is the derailment of the grouping’s bold plans to achieve regional economic integration by 2015. With its moribund economy and lack of progress on almost all aspects of development, Myanmar is likely to be a roadblock to regional economic integration, which requires a minimum degree of parity in economic development between member states in order to be successful.

Wake up call for ASEAN

Condoleezza Rice’s snub of the 2005 ARF was a wake up call for ASEAN governments, as it dawned on them how much of a liability Myanmar was turning out to be. The leadership of ASEAN is rotated annually among its 10 members. The most important responsibility of the ASEAN chair is to host all the major ASEAN meetings, including the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, the ASEAN Summit, the ARF and the East Asian Summit (which involves Australia, New Zealand and India).

Of these meetings, the ARF is probably the most significant as it involves ASEAN’s “Dialogue Partners”, including the US, the EU, China and Russia. It was a no brainer that any meetings held in Yangon (Myanmar‘s capital) would be skipped by the US, the EU and probably Australia and New Zealand.

To stave off this looming crisis, ASEAN foreign ministers in 2005 took an unprecedented move to strongly hint to Myanmar that it voluntarily forego its turn as ASEAN chairman. This was probably the furthest ASEAN has got to breaking its tradition of “non-interference” in the domestic affairs of member states. Fortunately, Myanmar got the hint and did give up its chairmanship, although the option still remains open for it to reclaim its turn at a future rotation.

By this time, ASEAN leaders were starting to openly voice their frustration at the continued recalcitrance of the Myanmar junta, and their unpredictable behaviour. One of the straws that broke the camel’s back was the junta’s sudden decision to move its capital from Yangon to the remote mountain town of Naypyidaw in November 2005. From then on, ASEAN governments decided that they would no longer spring to Myanmar‘s defence at international fora like the United Nations, and would leave them to defend themselves from Western criticism.

Put them “in the dog house”

Last Friday during the Shangri La Dialogue, an annual security forum in held in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the audience that ASEAN is virtually powerless to bring democracy to Myanmar.

He said, “We (ASEAN) have exercised our influence, persuaded, encouraged, cajoled the authorities in Myanmar to move and adapt to the world which is leaving them behind. The impact has been limited.”

He admitted that “Myanmar is a problem. It’s a problem for ASEAN, it’s a problem for Myanmar itself”. He continued, “We can take a strident position and say well, we will condemn you, we will shut you off, we will embargo you, we will put you in a dog house. Will we make things better? Will we cause things to change? I don’t believe so.”

These unusually bitter words coming from a Singapore leader were carried by Reuters and Associated Press, but were conspicuously absent from Singapore‘s newspapers, including The Straits Times.

It is true that ASEAN’s influence over Myanmar is limited. Even without ASEAN’s support, Myanmar can still count on the support of its two giant neighbours, China and India, who are competing with each other to give more money, aid and weapons to the regime in order to exercise more influence over that strategically located nation.

It was a colossal mistake for ASEAN to have admitted Myanmar into the fold in the first place. Although that is now water under the bridge, ASEAN’s continued reluctance to take concrete action against Myanmar has only served to embolden the Myanmar generals’ sense of invincibility and reinforce the commonly held view that ASEAN is a “toothless tiger”.

Myanmar rightly belongs in the dog house. Some parliamentarians from ASEAN countries have called on ASEAN to suspend their membership. However, none of the ASEAN countries appear ready to support this very harsh measure.

They would reason that if Myanmar can be suspended because of foreign pressure, then the same might happen to their own countries in the future.

The best scenario for ASEAN would be for Myanmar to voluntarily withdraw from the grouping. This might be a remote possibility if Myanmar realises that it cannot gain anything more from remaining in the grouping because its fellow member states no longer defend them in the face of criticism from other countries.

Should Myanmar remain obstinate, and move even further away from its “roadmap to democracy”, ASEAN should take a bold step to bite the bullet and suspend them, lest Myanmar becomes a millstone around ASEAN’s neck which eventually drowns the grouping.

At a minimum, ASEAN governments should break their traditional silence and speak as one voice against the behaviour of the Myanmar regime.

At the same time, the role of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) should be enhanced and their statements given more press coverage. The AIPMC consists of lawmakers from Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and an MP-elect from Myanmar.

Singapore‘s representative is Mr Charles Chong, PAP MP for Pasir Ris-Ponggol GRC. The AIPMC has repeatedly called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and for ASEAN’s ties with Myanmar to be suspended should they fail to do so.

Finally, ASEAN governments will see no compelling reason to act against Myanmar unless their electorates take a keener interest in the issue and pressure their governments to stop turning a blind eye to the plight of the Myanmarese people.

Malaysian opposition leader Lim Kit Siang probably expressed it best, when he remarked that “the lesson from the failure to block (the Myanmar regime’s) admission into ASEAN is that ASEAN cannot be expected to be forced to promote democratization in Burma until democratization itself has taken deep and firm root in the majority of ASEAN nation.”

About the author:

Gerald works in the IT industry and is a freelance political analyst. He blogs at Singaporepatriot. These are his personal views.
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Press release by the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC)

Suu Kyi’s detention – four years on, end it now!

15th May 2007

The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) is deeply concerned that pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will not be released from house arrest when her current term under house arrest comes up for review on May 27, this year. The military government has consistently extended her house arrest period annually since she was detained in May 2003 and AIPMC fears that the Myanmar military regime would act no differently this time around.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Suu Kyi has spent the past four years of her life under house arrest. She has been detained, without trial, for a total of close to 11 of the past 17 years. AIPMC finds these figure abhorring and is appalled by the fact that Burma’s chosen leader is prevented from exercising her basic human rights.

The military junta must no longer act arbitrarily and inhumanely towards its people but rather act in accordance with international standards of human rights as espoused to by ASEAN countries and the international community.

AIPMC calls on all governments in ASEAN and around the world to strongly and wilfully be vocal in ensuring Daw Suu Kyi’s detention is not extended. She has done no crime; instead she had taken a peaceful approach to seek democratic reforms in her homeland.

In relation to this, AIPMC firmly supports the initiative by former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik who has secured the endorsement of 50 former Presidents and Prime Ministers around the world in a petition campaign calling for Daw Suu Kyi’s immediate and unconditional release. AIPMC lauds their commitment to the Burma cause and encourages Myanmar’s regime to heed the wisdom of these former world leaders.

AIPMC further repeats its calls to the United Nations and its Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to encourage and support a UN Security Council resolution on Burma that would enable humanitarian and political intervention in Burma’s crisis.

The people of Burma have repeatedly called on the free world to help them. We cannot, in good conscience, turn a deaf ear to their plea.

AIPMC is an organisation comprising current and former Members of Parliament from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Further reading:

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)

Human Rights Watch on Burma

The Free Burma Coalition


6 Responses to “Myanmar regime belongs in the dog house”

  1. Steven Koh said

    The PAPPIES have been propping up the Burmese regime by supplying it with M-16s to massacre the karens and the karennei every year.

  2. Gerald said

    Steven – This is an extract from an academic paper, “Challenges to Democratization in Burma – Perspectives on multilateral and bilateral responses” by Swedish think tank IDEA

    According to defence analysts, Singapore was the first country to supply adequate arms and ammunition to Burma’s leaders when they came to power in 1988. Shortly after the coup in September 1988, workers at the port in Rangoon saw boxes marked “Allied Ordinance, Singapore” being unloaded from two vessels of Burma’s Five Star Shipping Line and onto about 70 army trucks bound for the Mingaladon military area. A report, “Transforming the Tatmadaw: The Burmese Armed Forces since 1988,” which was published by the Strategic and Defense Studies Center in Canberra, said these shipments reportedly included mortars, ammunition and raw materials for Burma’s arms factories. The consignment also contained 84-mm rockets for the Tatmadaw’s M2 Carl Gustav recoilless guns, which were supplied by Sweden-based Förenade Fabriksverken.

    It was also reported that in August 1989, more ammunition arrived in Rangoon by ship from Israel and Belgium via Singapore. This was, according to Canberra-based defence analyst Andrew Selth, assisted by SKS Marketing, a newly formed Singapore-based joint venture with the Burmese military government. Singapore has also provided training for a Burmese army and parachute unit, and more recently, a Singapore-based company helped Burma’s intelligence unit to upgrade its war office and build a cyber-war centre in Rangoon capable of telephone, fax and satellite communications. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly, Burma has begun manufacturing small arms, and possibly ordinance, using a prefabricated factory designed and built by Chartered Industries of Singapore in conjunction with Israeli consultants. In February 1998, the small arms factory was shipped from Singapore to Rangoon abroad the Sin Ho, a vessel owned by the Singapore-registered Company Lian Huat Shipping Co Pte. Despite the economic crisis and simmering social unrest, military leaders continue to spend heavily on arms and ammunition, a trend that started a decade ago following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

    In November 1997, Singapore refused to back a UN resolution criticizing widespread human rights abuses in Burma and calling on the country’s regime to recognize the results of the 1990 elections. Bilahari Kausikan, the Singaporean representative, told the UN General Assembly that his government could not support the resolution because “Our position is different. We have concrete and immediate stakes.” Not surprisingly, Burmese dissidents have been very critical of Singapore’s support for the regime, but this has, in Singapore’s view, been more than offset by the preferential treatment it has received from Burma’s military rulers. Singapore’s special status as a trade partner was clearly indicated when Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, the powerful first secretary of the ruling junta, instructed a coordinating board for the Myanmar–Singapore Joint Ministerial Working Committee to “give priority to projects arranged by Singapore”.

  3. Koh Jie Kai said

    We cannot just not suspend ties with Myanmar. For geopolitical reasons I think that it is important that we keep some form of communication. The last thing we need is for a Myanmar that is hostile to Singapore. Europe and America are far away. But we are rather closer- with a sizable migrant worker community from Myanmar to boot.

    In fact not all dissident groups oppose ASEAN’s continued engagement with the junta. I was at a seminar with Chairman Bo Aung Din, of the Parliamentary Democracy Party ( a dissident group), at an Amnesty International event at the Oxford Union. I asked him what ASEAN should do about Myanmar. He agreed with me that it was not in Myanmar’s best interest for ASEAN not to engage with the junta at all.He was in favour of trade, cultural and humanitarian links. Interestingly enough, he indicated that some ASEAN governments were actually rather sympathetic to the plight of the Myanmar opposition. At the end of the day however, he argued that democratic change in Myanmar could only come from its own people, and he did not favour foreign intervention- especially military intervention.

    I mostly agree with this, and Singapore should maintain economic and other non-military ties with Myanmar. Trade, tourism and other links provide valuable opportunities to allow the common people of Myanmar to know what is going on in the outside world. This is important. We see all around the world that economic sanctions only help to prop up the dictatorships within, and it is unsurprising that the most fervent popular support for dictatorships comes from countries which are culturally and economically isolated- just look at North Korea and Cuba, or the various tinpot autocracies in sub-saharan Africa. In contrast, opening up forces governments to behave more reasonably towards their own people- China is a good example of this.

    Having said that, I think that we need to take a consistent and firm stance against the Myanmar government on its human rights abuses. For a start, I think that the government should impose a ban on exports of any weapons or arms-making machinery to Myanmar. Yes, there’s a problem of “dual use” machine tools, but sophisticated systems or machines should not be exported.
    And we should acknowlege that mistakes were made by selling arms to them in the past.

    I do not think that this will make a practical difference to the ability of the junta in its ability to oppress the people, since the wikipedia article on the subject seems to indicate that Myanmar can produce many small arms on its own. Nevertheless, I think by this gesture we can send out a moral message that we do not condone the gross human rights abuses that this evil government does, and we will not play a direct role in supporting it.

  4. Gerald said

    I wasn’t calling for a complete suspension of ties with Myanmar. It wouldn’t be possible anyway, given how inter-connected our world and our region is. Even if they were suspended from Asean, it wouldn’t put a halt to bilateral relationships with individual Asean countries.

    However, I think it’s wrong for us to have defended them to the hilt in the past. In many ways, it’s a reflection of our own lack of esteem for the basic tenets of democracy. As for the arms trade with them, I think it’s just plain immoral of our govt. At least countries like the US supply arms to despotic regimes for national security reasons (not saying that’s right). But our arms trade with Myanmar is just for the money and probably to prop up our struggling defence industries.

    Suspending Myanmar or cutting ties with them is not going to change the regime overnight, but at least it sends a signal. No one thought that the apartheid regime in South Africa would give up power, but it eventually did under the weight of international sanctions and ostracism, and a bold organised struggled by the then-opposition ANC. I hope the same peaceful transition to democracy can happen to Myanmar one day.

  5. Gerald, I would disagree with you on the point that we need Myanmar to prop up our defence industries. That era of tinpot factories was long gone.

    I think the only reason we stay engaged today is through realpolitik and the belief that a regime that is benefiting in many ways, including possibly financially, is a regime less likely to accept fragmentation and fracturing in the Burmese ethnic landscape.

    This is probably one of the issues that worry the fellas up there, not to mention a weakened Burma at this moment might fall deeper into Chinese influence.

    The way I see it, we need a two pronged approach to ensure that ASEAN is engaged in Burma to an extent that it counters Chinese influence in the North yet at the same time, vary the engagement methods such that the regime does not benefit laissez-faire from the investments that ASEAN states, especially Singapore is pouring in.

    Perhaps we should start to tie conditions to our investment aid, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for our government to suddenly preach liberty and capitalism in one mouthful to the Burmese junta.

  6. Ned Stark said

    Celluloid Reality,

    Why would the government want to do that? Its not as if they practise it 😛

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