ASEAN ups the ante, but who for?

Burma’s foreign minister Nyan Win has left Vietnam early and is back in Naypyidaw relatively relieved that he has escaped further criticism from his counterparts at the series of regional meetings in the capital Hanoi this week. The foreign minister will not be representing his country at the regional security ministerial conference – the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) – which meets today on Friday, and which will certainly mention Burma.

In an unexpected move the Asian foreign ministers gave Burma a battering at this year’s regional meeting of ministers, and it was Nyan Win who bore the brunt of the verbal bashing in the retreat and ministerial meetings –details of these are supposed to be confidential but have a habit of seeping out.

Many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministers, who are more media-savvy than their more uncommunicative colleague from Burma, were happy to tell journalists details from these sessions – putting their spin on what was said. It is quite clear though that the ministers were keen to impress upon the Burmese that a lot was expected from the elections and that Burma and ASEAN’s reputation was at stake.

“The Myanmar [Burma] minister got an earful from his ASEAN colleagues and was left in no doubt that they expected the election [later this year] to credible and inclusive,” the ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told me on the sidelines of the meeting.

Burma was pressed on the election date, the conduct of the election and the recent reports that the regime was planning to build nuclear weapons. There is also little doubt that behind the scenes the Asian diplomats are getting quite irritated by the Burmese minister’s lack of openness in dealing with his colleagues. But there is no doubt that ASEAN knows that, for better or worse, they are stuck with Burma; and to make matters worse, it remains on Burma’s terms. So all the Asian ministers can do is hope that the junta at least listens to their concerns.

“Once the generals take off their uniforms and they have to win votes and kiss babies and tend to local needs, their behaviour will change and the economy will gradually open up,” Singapore’s foreign minister George Yeo told journalists earlier this week after meeting his Burmese counterpart. “We don’t see a sharp break from what it is today [after the elections] but we will see an important turning which will lead Myanmar into a different situation.”

“The election’s will offer a wonderful chance for Myanmar to prove that it has entered a new era and use the opportunity for national reconciliation,” Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa said in an interview. “We told Myanmar that the elections must be free and fair, and inclusive,” he said, though added that the calls were not necessarily universal. It is clear that several countries in the region – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand – all went on the record to stress the need for Burma to hold credible elections before the end of the year.

ASEAN views these forthcoming elections as a chance for transition to democracy in Burma. “ASEAN is very much interested in the peaceful national reconciliation in Myanmar and whatever happens there will have implications in ASEAN, positive or negative,” said Surin.

“Myanmar listened intently to what was said, and nodded approvingly at times, and agreed to take the region’s concerns back to the top guy,” he added. But Burma’s representative was far less talkative, and completely shunned the press, refusing to answer any questions at all. The journalists’ constant questions on the election timing were all greeted with stony silence.

After persistent attempts, Nyan Win eventually told me that he was not the “election commission”, implying that he could not decide the election date. He also told his ASEAN counterparts, behind closed doors, that when the party registration process was finalised, the electoral commission would announce the actual date, and that should be in the next couple of months, the Indonesian foreign minister confided to me. But he told the Bangladeshi foreign minister, Dipu Moni – with whom he had a 20-minute bilateral – that “we are still hoping that the election will be in October”.

It is hard to understand the minister’s optimism, for the Election Commission has to give 90 days’ notice of the start of the election campaigning, and allowing 15 days for electioneering, it would seem impossible for the election to be held before mid-November. “No one really knows the election date, not even the minister,” a senior Burmese diplomat with the delegation told me during one of the coffee breaks.

But Burma’s foreign minister is obviously preparing for the polls. He is going to become a politician, he told his ASEAN colleagues Surin Pitsuwan and George Yeo, who told me that Nyan Win was entering politics and intended to run for parliament. But when asked about whether he would become an MP, he waved away the question and either grunted or smiled. This attitude and behaviour will have to change, according to the ASEAN ministers, and maybe this will be start of a more fundamental shift of approach.

“By free and fair elections, we mean allowing the international press in to cover the elections, less restrictions and censorship on political material published by the local press and the political parties’ propaganda,” Natalegawa said. “But we haven’t raised this issue directly with them.”

The real issue that concerns the Asian foreign ministers is really how to present the Burmese election as credible, though Indonesia has a more active desire to influence Burma’s approach because they recently went through their own transition to democracy, and understands that this not an easy process. “We naturally empathise with their situation,” Natalegawa said.

Indonesia has taken the lead on this – as it did at the last summit in April – in pushing for international or regional observers or monitors. It was one of the key issues that ASEAN foreign ministers impressed upon the hapless Nyan Win earlier this week. “We suggested quite strongly to our Myanmar colleagues that they consider having ASEAN observers at the elections, bringing in members of the family into what is really their own domestic affair,” Yeo told reporters in Hanoi.

“I prefer to use the term visitors and deliberately avoid the term observers or monitors,” Natalegawa said. “But certainly it would be great to have parties other than the country itself being able to experience the election so we can have our own independent impressions,” he said. That was what Indonesia has done since its first real democratic elections in 1998.

Of course Nyan Win is used to this – he has heard it all before – but perhaps the appeal to the regime was more insistent and stronger than ever before. “Most of the ministers persistently pressed this issue,” Surin confided. And the Burmese minister promised to report it back to the top leaders, according to Natalegawa, Surin and Yeo. But when pressed – “You raised it last time and there has been no movement or answer” – Natalegawa smiled and said “we have to be hopeful.”

Now Nyan Win is back in Burma, where he has a lot to do before he can turn his attention to the elections. He had to leave Hanoi early because he is accompanying junta supremo, Than Shwe, to India this weekend, and his return will be hosting the North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun who will be visiting Burma next week. But there is no doubt that ASEAN this time gave Burma a piece of their mind – but the reality is that the regime does not care about their views – China and India are more important.

Leave a reply