Features & profiles


Fiction reviews

Health, psychology & science stories


Investigative stories

Non-fiction reviews



PR, copy, corporate

Prime Minister interviews

Southeast Asia


( 363 visitor comments )


Southeast Asia


ASEAN's Burma schizophrenia

27 July 2005

“Myanmar will continue to afflict ASEAN long after this debate on Chairmanship is over.” 

- Malaysian MP Teresa Kok, Secretary of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Democracy in Myanmar

In bringing ASEAN’s long-simmering anxiety over Burma into the daylight for the first time, the issue of that nation’s now-defunct chairmanship of the regional bloc represented not an end but a beginning: The beginning of a new period of anguish over Burma’s erratic military leadership, its dying economy, and its “calamity exports” of drugs, disease and refugees to the other nine ASEAN nations. And the beginning of a debate on the larger issue for which the chairmanship served as a lightning rod - the very credibility and relevance of ASEAN: whose member nations obtain from Burma trading profits and diplomatic embarrassment in roughly equal measure.
The decades-old founding documents of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations cite as ASEAN’s objectives “regional peace and stability...and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter” – but also “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”. Burma has finally roused these core contradictions from dormancy to painful life.
Thailand’s Ambassador to the UN from 1996 to 2001, Asda Jayanama, told the IHT: “Some of the more…I won’t say simple-minded…but some of the more optimistic members of ASEAN hoped that by bringing Burma in we would influence them in a positive way - bring them to the ASEAN norms, and make them less suspicious of outsiders. But it has not happened. ASEAN is hostage to Burmese policy. The tail wags the dog. They’ve got everything they wanted, including the ASEAN political shield from Western attack. But what do we get?”
The contradictions have had a geographical dimension too. Traditionally, the more developed, original ASEAN nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand) hold widely divergent views from ASEAN’s newer members (Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia) on democracy, transparency and human rights. The former have often been more anxious about Burms’s depredations, and the latter sympathetic to its authoritarian government, which bears some similarities to their own. But even that is now changing, with the “new” ASEAN nations conspicuously failing to defend Burma in recent weeks.
Though long-sidelined by the West, it’s not hard to see why Burma is the focus of such intense interest within ASEAN. It is resource-rich, and geographically the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. Sandwiched between the regional superpowers, China and India, Burma is the strategically vital “landbridge” between South and Southeast Asia. Bringing this regional “plumb” into the ASEAN fold in 1997, the bloc’s nations hoped, would slow Burma’s drift into China’s embrace, and entice it toward open government and a market economy.
Eight years on, those hopes are in tatters. Chinese arms sales (an estimated $3.5 billion since 1980) and general investment are soaring; the junta still has one of the world’s most damning narcotics rap-sheets and human rights records; and the government which in 1987 wiped out the savings of millions by abolishing those banknotes not divisible by 9 - the then-dictator Ne Win’s lucky number – still displays little grasp of contemporary economics.
In 2000, in the wake of mounting western trade sanctions, ASEAN overtook the European Union as Burma’s major foreign investment bloc. Burma’s Central Statistical Organization states that, by 2002, 48 percent ($2.5 billion) of Burma’s bilateral trade was with ASEAN countries. (All economic data from Burma is suspect, however. It is usually seen as “indicative” rather than accurate.)
But the ASEAN chairmanship debate, which brought ASEAN such unwelcome attention, has caused regional leaders’ attitudes to harden. Malaysian parliamentarian Teresa Kok, Secretary of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Democracy in Burma, says: “Malaysia strongly wanted Burma to be admitted into ASEAN. So I think they are really embarrassed now. Even the leaders, the ministers - they agree now that we shouldn’t compromise so much. Burma hasn’t done any good to them so far.”
Did the chairmanship debate bring ASEAN to some kind of turning point?
“Certainly,” says Francis Pangilanan, Majority Leader in the Philippines Senate. “We are aware that the founding principle of ASEAN is noninterference in each other's internal affairs. Indeed no country has the right to deprive Burma of its right [to be] an equal member of ASEAN. However, how long must the world act as an onlooker?”
Kok also points out that ASEAN’s now-damaged credibility with the West has changed attitudes. In this vein, one regional analyst believes that where engaging with Burma is concerned, “even the newer ASEAN members have a lot to lose. Cambodia wants US backing to become a full member of the World Trade Organization, Laos wants a normalized trading relationship with the US, and Vietnam's relationship with the US is undergoing huge changes. It is doubtful that Vietnam would want to put that on the line for Burma.”
A 2004 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit puts Singapore as Myanmar’s second-largest source of imports, and in Myanmar’s 2004 official figures (which much-understate China’s role), Singapore was its major foreign investor. According to the figures, 20 percent of Burma’s foreign investment approvals were from Singapore – or about $1.5 billion cumulative. (Typically, about one-third of this would reach investment stage.) In May, a Singapore firm won a $10 million contract to expand Rangoon's international airport.
If the many claims documented by Australian intelligence analyst Andrew Selth in Jane’s Intelligence Review are accurate, the island nation has also been Burma’s leading arms supplier within ASEAN – such arrangements going back to 1988, when Singapore’s timely assistance apparently helped the regime to stave off Aung San Suu Kyi’s rising democracy movement. Through the 1990s, such reported sales included mortars and ammunition, 84mm rockets, grenade-launchers, anti-tank guns, a surface-to-air missile system, and an arms factory – all either made by Singapore companies or quietly shipped through Singapore from third countries.
A spokesman for the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented: “The Jane’s report is speculative in nature. Our views of Myanmar are well-known. We honour our international obligations and enforce all UN arms embargoes.”
In the 1990s the island state also served as a second home for a Burmese drug baron – a fact which, when it came to light, did little for Singapore’s anti-drug reputation. It is reasonable to guess that all these factors reinforced Singapore’s willingness to let Burma bow out of the ASEAN chairmanship.
On the political front, no ASEAN country has backed the Burma regime so staunchly as its contiguous neighbor, Thailand - officially Burma’s third-largest foreign investor, at $1,341 million in approvals, cumulative to 2004.
In 2001, after an era of recriminations and Thai-Burma border clashes, Thailand’s new Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a business-oriented pragmatist with a Thai nose for conciliation, embraced the ASEAN credo of “constructive engagement” with Burma. Last December, after meeting junta members in Rangoon, Thaksin ventured that the house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was “reasonable enough and convincing” - explaining that releasing her could lead to Burma “being torn apart”.
But Thailand is experiencing some instability of its own from the policies of Burma’s leadership. Thaksin is now unwilling host to 142,000 Burmese refugees, fleeing ethnic insurgencies and government-sponsored relocation, rape and murder. There are an estimated one million Burmese “illegals” inside Thailand, according to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report.
In the 1980s, Burmese heroin played a – perhaps the - central role in kicking off Thailand’s AIDS epidemic (as it has also done for the AIDS epidemics in China and northeastern India). Whilst remaining Burma’s most vocal supporter, Thailand has the world’s highest proportion of methamphetamine users, courtesy of the estimated 800 million meths pills which are trafficked in each year from Burma. Government statements on the drug menace rarely mention Burma’s role, though Thai drug officials remain anxious about Burma’s clear role in it.
Similar ambivalence exists in the Thai-Burma trade arena. In 1995, Thailand contracted to buy gas from Burma, proceeds from which are projected to be $250 million this year. Since 2002, the gas sales appear to have helped finance an arms-buying spree by Burma – Thailand’s traditional enemy – which has caused much discomfort in Thai government circles.
Regional leaders are privy to very detailed intelligence on Burma’s activities, so the alacrity with which Thailand and its ASEAN confreres eased Burma out of the chairmanship is hardly surprising: Burma’s junta has opened upon Southeast Asia a Pandora’s Box of heroin, methamphetamines, refugees, people-trafficking, and their attendant maladies of crime and official corruption. The region’s HIV epidemics tend to follow Burmese heroin routes.
Most of Burma’s calamity exports are underpinned by drugs - and for years the junta has painted itself as a crusader against the trade. Now there is growing evidence that the generals themselves are involved in it.
Raphael Perl, a senior drug policy analyst with the US Congress, says, “No Burmese army officer over the rank of full colonel has ever been prosecuted for drug-related activities. I think that tells you a lot.”
“It’s the Burmese government,” says worker with the Free Burma Rangers, a Christian group which ferries medicine and education supplies throughout eastern Burma. “When the Army operates in a certain part of Shan State, they order villagers to grow opium, and then take a cut. This is based on many, many interviews with villagers. Orders come from battalion commander level - that’s a lieutenant-colonel.”
“The heroin trucks come through here in the middle of the night, escorted by the Army,” claimed a resident of Hsipaw in northern Burma, in an April interview with the IHT. “You can see soldiers guarding the opium fields at Nam Hsan, 49 miles from here,” said a second Hsipaw resident.
A US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) source in Thailand says Burma’s junta is “heavily involved” in the trade.
“The drugs go to Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia - some to the West,” said the Free Burma Rangers worker. “Asia’s engagement with Burma is a big mistake. It will hurt those leaders - if only their reputations.”
Thailand is not the only ASEAN state to experience the painful contradictions of supporting Burma’s generals. At a cumulative $661 million in approvals, Malaysia is officially Burma’s fourth-largest foreign investor. In a customary nod to the junta on June 15, Malaysia arrested 68 Burmese democracy protestors in Kuala Lumpur for “assembling without authorisation”. Little such consideration is shown in return: Malaysia is a key destination for Burmese heroin, “human traffic” and refugees from its repressed Muslim minority.
Last month [June], the World Health Organization warned that Malaysia was “in the beginning stages” of an HIV epidemic. 75 percent of Malaysians who contract HIV are intravenous heroin users: most of Malaysia’s heroin comes from Burma’s Golden Triangle region.
But Malaysian parliamentarian Teresa Kok says it is mostly economics which is now finally turning ASEAN opinion against Burma: “A lot of businesspeople from the ASEAN region have burned their fingers in Burma. In admitting Burma in 1997, what the ASEAN countries wanted most was the economic opportunities - if Burma was going to liberalize. But they see that after almost 10 years this is not happening. So they think it is time for them to take a stronger stand on Burma. It has become their burden.”
ASEAN member Vietnam - which in 2001 sold the junta $2 million in 82mm mortar ammunition – is also a significant export destination for Burmese drugs. But the Philippines ($147 million in cumulative investment approvals in Burma to 2004) has a special problem of its own. According to a 2002 US Congressional Library research report, there has been a linkup between its Abu Sayyaf terrorist group and Golden Triangle narco-traffickers.
Whilst drugs are the most famous of Burma’s calamity exports, a more immediate “trigger” for a regional crisis might be avian flu. Burma is officially free of the disease, but in Rangoon, a senior journalist with contacts in Burma’s health ministry told the IHT that Burma suffered outbreaks of avian flu throughout 2004 - the last one in December - and that ministry officials have been ordered to deny this publicly.
“Here in Rangoon,” the journalist said, “the outbreaks were mostly in the military-run poultry farms, but some private ones too.” The spread of avian flu out of Burma could have far-reaching consequences. Epidemics in Southeast Asia in 2003-4 led to the deaths of 100 million chickens, and an estimated $8-12 billion in losses.
In March this year, thousands of chickens died of a mystery ailment in several parts of Burma. The government informed the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization that avian flu was not involved. “There have been some deaths due to the extreme heat,” an official told the media.
Private anger toward Burma within ASEAN, says Philippines Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilanan, is “fairly widespread, especially for those that advocate peace, human rights and democracy. In tightly controlled Rangoon, citizens say that hope for reform has never been dimmer and open revolt is impossible. People are still haunted by memories of the military gunning down of hundreds of protesters in a 1988 pro-democracy uprising.”
Burma specialist David Arnott, librarian of the Online Burma/Myanmar Library, says: “The economic future of South Asia, Southeast Asia and Western China depends to a large degree on the integration of their economies. A major obstacle to such integration is that the geographical center of this potential development zone is occupied by Burma, with its economically incompetent leaders presiding over the collapse of the economy.”
Has the chairmanship issue has damaged ASEAN - weakened its credibility? “Yeah, I think so,” Teresa Kok says. “I really do.” Burma’s membership of ASEAN, Kok believes, “is very difficult to justify in the international community, because after so many years there have been no changes.”
Where to from here? Certainly the days of what Thailand’s Ambasador Jayanama calls “double-talk diplomacy - you talk one thing and do another” would seem to be over. “Burma is a regional problem now,” Jayanama says - adding that ASEAN taking the drastic step of asking Kofi Annan’s Special Envoy to Burma to brief the UN Security Council “would shake the Burmese”.
“This ‘internal problem’ thing is a fake, it’s not a reality,” Jayanama says. “We should look at the Burmese problem as a collective problem for ASEAN. It’s no longer an internal problem, because a lot of things that happen in Burma affect all of us. People think maybe India or China would do something - but I don’t think so. If anyone is going to do it, it will be ASEAN. But constructive engagement has failed.”

Visitor's : Add Comment