By Panchali Saikia
In the ASEAN discourse, an amalgamated security community is least likely to occur when most of its member states are facing internal political difficulties. The non-interference in one another’s internal affairs policy of ASEAN has undermined any past effort to deal with internal political difficulties. As a result ASEAN has once again failed to offer a firm and regionally-approved approach on the upcoming 7 November elections in Myanmar. This raises concerns as to what extent the military junta will go in addressing ASEAN demands for a fair and transparent election. With contradictory norms, geopolitical interests, and differences in opinion and political identities, how far will ASEAN succeed in bringing a consensus on the Myanmar question?
Myanmar has been one of ASEAN’s stumbling blocks ever since the country joined the organization in 1997 and it continues to exploit its place in ASEAN to gain more international legitimacy. ASEAN has in principle committed itself towards becoming a democratic entity, and the road to democracy to Myanmar is a key criterion for the success of the ASEAN Charter. The harsh election laws restricting the National Democratic League (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi from participating in the elections, shows that yet again the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime remains dominant in Myanmar. ASEAN member states upholding the binding principles of the Charter have a key role to play in the Myanmar elections for a failure to address critical issues before the elections will make the Charter a mere charade of regional community objectives and damage its international credibility.
However, because of the political divisions in Southeast Asia, reaching a consensus on a problem such as the political transition in Myanmar still remains a remote possibility. Indonesia being a democratic country has shown keen interest in election procedures and was highly critical of the election law. It has also raised the idea of arranging assistance and support to Myanmar during the elections. The Philippines Foreign Secretary has stated that the election is a farce and is flawed, and would cost ASEAN not only goodwill but its legitimacy. On the other hand, ASEAN members like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia preferred not to interfere in Myanmar’s internal politics, abiding by the ASEAN non-intervention policy. Many of these member states are bound and restricted by their individual interests in Myanmar. Thailand has, for example, avoided criticizing Myanmar’s election because most it has frequently relied on the junta army to maintain its own political stability. (Thailand however, remains worried about the large number of Myanmarese refugees and workers on its soil.) Meanwhile, Singapore too, has remained quiet because of its heavy economic interests in the country.
With the global economic crisis and political unrest in many member states, it is essential for ASEAN to review its non-intervention policy. ASEAN had previously demonstrated flexibility in this policy by providing security assistance to its member countries and working through the UN in internal conflicts. It is important for member countries to show willingness to subordinate sovereignty for common benefit and alongside ensuring that smaller states are not dominated by bigger ones.
It is also important to note that ASEAN’s previous efforts in maintaining peace and stability during internal political turmoil have been insufficient. Thailand and Philippines, once known as the icons of democracy in Southeast Asia are under threat with increasing political turmoil. The pattern of government change in both these states has brought political instability. ASEAN abiding by the principle of non-interference has allowed most of its members to ignore the Thai problem. Thailand’s democratic transition was always a source of inspiration but the instability and conflict between the ‘Red Shirts’ and Prime Minister Abhijit Vijjajiva makes it difficult for ASEAN to accomplish its dream of fostering democracy in Southeast Asia. This inability and weakness of ASEAN to manage peace and stability when a member country faces political difficulty is a major hindrance to the objective of ASEAN in forging an integrated community by 2015.
It is important that Myanmar accept the ASEAN proposals and follow a similar election procedure as that of Cambodia and Indonesia. The Cambodia election in 2003 and Indonesia’s in 1998 saw a peaceful political transition because they both had domestic and foreign observers. Moreover, Indonesia’s election commission had representatives from both the government and other political parties. Jakarta also gave priority to resolving the ethnic conflicts before the election. Myanmar however, has denied the ASEAN offers for sending observers during the elections.
ASEAN should therefore now focus on ensuring a peaceful transition to civilian rule. Sanctions and extremely harsh criticism have the potential to reinforce diplomatic friction between ASEAN and Myanmar. The international community should emphasize on greater openness and pragmatic diplomacy like providing technical aid, support in capacity building and urging Myanmar to recognize its pledge to implement changes by maintaining peace. It will be interesting however, to know how much political leverage ASEAN will have in Myanmar in the post-election scenario.
Panchali Saikia, Research Officer, SEARP, IPCS, may be reached at [email protected]