Investing a dubious future in ASEAN

The April by-elections will either serve as a catalyst to further ease sanctions, or drum down Burma’s reform efforts. The remaining weeks ahead of the polls are pivotal. President Thein Sein has yet to send a strong signal regarding the kind of election his government wants to see—anything short of a free and fair vote would not augur well with the current high expectations.

At a recent meeting with Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan was succinct in urging Burma to conduct the upcoming election in a free and fair manner, given how closely the world is now watching. During the general election in November 2010, the diplomatic community inside Burma was invited to monitor the election. While the ASEAN diplomats took up the invitation, other Western missions refused to join, and as a result the international community widely condemned the election as a sham. Nonetheless, it paved the way for former prime minister Thein Sein to enter office and show his mettle and vision as the country’s president.

However, this time around, Surin also urged that his government should go a little bit further by inviting the ASEAN officials from their capitals directly to observe the polling stations, as “it will boost transparency, which will add to international goodwill.” As the case may be, each ASEAN member can dispatch its own officials, if so desires, with or without local media corps, to observe the polls.

After Surin’s recent trip to Burma, the Burmese government and the opposition party leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, have further strengthened engagements with him and the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat. For nearly two years after Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people and devastated the Irrawaddy delta, Surin and the secretariat worked together with Burmese and international organisations to rehabilitate the affected region and assist cyclone victims. Of late, Naypyidaw has been more forthcoming with the role that the ASEAN Secretariat played in the wake of the cyclone.

For Suu Kyi, the meeting with Surin served as an ice-breaker between her and the bloc which had turned against her for nearly two decades. However, her spirit of reconciliation with the Thein Sein government has benefitted ASEAN as well. Suddenly, it was no longer taboo to hold a meeting with her. When Surin called on Suu Kyi for the first time in February, she confirmed her wish of seeing Burma further develop over the coming decade. If that is the case, Suu Kyi needs to get acquainted with ASEAN affairs and its relevant activities. Surin told reporters after his latest Burmese trip that he was impressed by her intelligence and vitality. “She is the region’s political icon,” he said, referring to Suu Kyi’s popularity inside and outside Burma. “ASEAN can serve as a bridge between Burma and the outside world.”

If she wins her parliamentary seat, she will also have ample opportunity to travel within the region and connect with ASEAN politicians, thereby further engaging in various ASEAN activities and programs.

In the case that the Thein Sein government does decide to invite ASEAN diplomats from their capitals directly, it would be a milestone in ASEAN-Burma relations. First of all, it further strengthens ties that have often felt the strain of Naypyidaw’s non compliance, as well as setting precedence for the next general election in 2015. Secondly, it would be the first time that Burma has sought out electoral assistance from ASEAN. In 2000, Indonesia bypassed the ASEAN principle of non-interference by inviting individual ASEAN members to dispatch troops to East Timor, which comprised international peacekeeping. Former President B J Habibi preferred to ASEAN peacekeepers on board than international peacekeepers.

What is clear is that Thein Sein wants the outcome of the April by-elections to be positive enough for the US and EU to end sanctions, but this is still a tall order. So far, ASEAN has been consistent in urging its dialogue partners to get rid of sanctions against Burma. The EU could be first to react to the election as the grouping’s foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on 23 April in Brussels to review overall policy towards Burma.

In this regard, having the ASEAN representatives on the ground during the vote would help to convince the EU to lift remaining sanctions. In a similar vein, the US would respond positively if ASEAN endorses the electoral results as free and fair. After the ASEAN leaders expressed support for Burma’s chairing of the bloc in 2014, the US and EU moved quickly to mend fences with Burma, and within the past six months, they have started the process of normalising relations and increasing humanitarian assistance.

But whether or not the government in Burma decides to engage ASEAN for the April election will be test of how willing the president is to reach out to international partners, and a signal of how far he will allow the political opposition to play a role in government.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a senior editor at The Nation newspaper in Thailand and has been covering Burma as a journalist for more than 20 years

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