CHA-AM, Thailand — Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein was relaxed at the 15th Asean Summit in the Thai beach town of Hua Hin. The pressure he had felt from his counterparts in earlier meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) had simply evaporated.
The lack of significant criticsm of Burma at the current meeting, which ends on Sunday, was no doubt even felt by his boss, Sen-Gen Than Shwe, and other junta generals back in Naypyidaw, the capital.
The lack of criticism doesn’t mean that human rights violations in the military-ruled country have stopped. About 2,100 political prisoners still languish in its notorious jails and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still under an 18-month house arrest.
What’s changed are regional and national factors: the current border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia; the tardy arrival of half of the Asean leaders because of a tropical storm; domestic political matters in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia; and the negotiations involved in forming an Asean economic community by 2015, which was one of the summit’s chief goals.
More importantly, the diplomatic dance between Burma and the United States in recent weeks has overshadowed Burma’s presence at the summit. A US delegation will visit Burma soon to begin direct talks with junta leaders, part of a new US “engagement policy” announced in September.
At the Asean 2007 summit in Singapore, Thein Sein was pressured by his counterparts after the junta violently suppressed mass demonstrations organized by monks, killing and jailing peaceful protestors, which outraged the world community.
Asean host chair Singapore had invited UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to Burma to brief the leaders of 16 Asian countries, including China and Japan, on his visits to Burma after the crackdown.
Thein Sein’s retort: “Nobody has the right to brief on Myanmar but me” caused a diplomatic furor and the invitation was revoked.
Thein Sein and his delegation also faced also Asean pressure at the 14th summit in Feb-Mar this year. The United States, as the strongest vocal critic of the military regime, raised the issue of Burma’s stonewalling on civil rights in one-on-one conversations with delegates. In addition, the civil society representatives highlighted the issue of the scores of Rohingya, who had fled Burma to Thailand by boat, to escape harsh economic conditions and discrimination in western Burma.
In July this year, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win was the focus of Asean pressure at the ministerial meeting of the Asean Regional Forum. At that time, Suu Kyi, who was due to be released in May, faced trial, following the bizarre intrusion of an American into her Rangoon lakeside compound. Apart from her trial, international concerns also centered on Burma’s military ties with North Korea and the issue of nuclear weapons.
During this summit, Then Sein did manage to inject himself into the current tension between Thailand and Cambodia, following a war of words after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen offered sanctuary to fugitive ex-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thein Sein reportedly told the Thai prime minister that Burma would not allow anyone to use its soil as a springboard to attack Thailand.
Even though the pressure was off Thein Sein at this summit, the Burma issue didn’t go away entirely. On Saturday, Asean leaders again called on the junta to conduct free and fair elections in 2010, but avoided criticizing it directly.
The statement read: “We underscore the importance of achieving national reconciliation and that the general elections to be held in Myanmar [Burma] in 2010 must be conducted in a fair, free, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community.”
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told reporters late Saturday that Asean didn’t take tougher measures this time because there were positive developments, such as the direct contact between Suu Kyi and the military regime and between the US and the regime. He said, however, Asean’s policy remains firm in terms of calling for the release of all political prisoners and including opposition groups in the upcoming election.
The diplomatic pressure that Burma has faced in the past has lessened, at least for right now, mostly because it comes at a time when the junta is undertaking face-to-face talks with the US.
However, some Burma watchers believe that Than Shwe is just “buying time” while the junta consolidates more power, as the generals have done over the past two decades.
One thing is clear. It was a mistake for Asean leaders to take a soft approach toward Burma at this summit, before the junta has made any significant progress toward democracy and national reconciliation.