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The ASEAN Bloc's Myanmar Dilemma

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
October 2, 2007


With the shakeout from Myanmar’s late September protests still unclear, international attention turns to the diplomatic turmoil sparked by the unrest, most notably among Myanmar’s neighbors. Outrage over Myanmar’s apparent government clampdown on protestors placed the ten states of ASEAN—the Association of South East Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar—in an uncomfortable bind. The Financial Times says the Myanmar question is the “biggest political crisis” faced by the forty-year-old bloc and comes at a “sensitive time when the group is about to launch moves to promote closer integration.”

The response to the Myanmar crackdown among ASEAN member states has been mixed. ASEAN foreign ministers, meeting at the UN in New York, issued a statement condemning the use of automatic weapons on protestors and urging Myanmar’s government to “exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution.” Yet beyond such statements of concern, analysts see little chance of ASEAN members taking harsher steps like economic sanctions. Bloc member Thailand relies on Myanmar’s natural gas for 20 percent of its electricity generation, and Singapore and Malaysia compete for Myanmar’s hardwoods and minerals, reports the New York Times.

Newspapers in the region remain critical of Myanmar’s junta—and one reader, commenting in the Jakarta Post, called ASEAN’s leaders “shamefully weak” for their response. With the international outcry also growing, efforts by ASEAN countries to retain economic ties with Myanmar now threaten to erode trade deals with other countries. A member of the European Parliament told Reuters that disagreements over Myanmar could impede progress toward a potential free trade deal between the EU and ASEAN.

Non-ASEAN countries in the region have also remained relatively quiet in their response to the reported government crackdown on demonstrators. Japan, Myanmar’s largest aid donor, demanded the Myanmar government end its crackdown (AP) following the killing of a Japanese photojournalist in Yangon—but threats of punitive economic measures have yet to produce any concrete policy. Myanmar’s largest trading partner, China, has already resisted talk of sanctions, even amid some calls in the West to threaten a boycott of the Beijing Olympics if China refuses stronger action. India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mujkherjee expressed deep “concerns” about Myanmar at an October 1 talk at CFR, but India has come out against sanctions (Business Standard) on Myanmar. Yet even if calls for sanctions succeed, the FT’s Gideon Rachman notes that they might “achieve nothing in the short term” and could cause lasting damage by deepening Myanmar’s isolation and punishing only its citizens, not its government.

The events in Myanmar are likely to dominate discussion at ASEAN’s annual meetings this November in Singapore. They also raise new questions about the group’s relevance. A Heritage Foundation report from March 2007 examines the group’s potential power as a U.S. ally in the global war on terror, given the emergence of terrorist activity in some ASEAN member states. A 2006 CFR roundtable discussion on emerging Asia focused on ASEAN’s successes as a trade bloc.  But the Economist, in a piece published weeks before the current unrest, says ASEAN once “seemed important” but that the “failure to win any concessions from Myanmar has badly tarnished its credibility.”

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