The saffron uprising in Burma made two things clear:
First, the Burmese junta wields enough power to overwhelmingly crush its opponents. It cares little about the worldwide revulsion against repression of peaceful protests, generated by the Citizen, Internet and Mobile (CIM) effect, which now powerfully complements the CNN effect.
Second, Asian nations have little fondness for the "responsibility to protect" idea, an evolving principle that calls for international action to protect civilians from being attacked and killed by their own government even if the conflict did not spill over to become a "threat to international peace and security."
During the UN Security Council debate on Burma on 5 October, it was striking to see the representatives of China and Burma singing a duet. According to a summary transcript of the debate, Chinese representative Wang Guangya insisted that "the situation was already calming down; the current situation did not pose any threat to international or regional peace and security." The Burmese representative, U Kyaw Tint Swe, parroted: "the situation has returned to normal; the situation was not a threat either to regional or international peace and security."
While the Chinese counseled that "the future lay in the hands of the people and government of Myanmar," and hence "outside pressure would not help address the problem, but might lead to mistrust and confrontation," his Burmese comrade insisted: "challenges in the country must be met by the people themselves" and therefore the Security Council "should refrain from any action that would be detrimental." Read: Foreigners keep out. This was a cruel and cynical choice of words, implying the uprising against the regime was not a willing act of the people of Burma themselves.
The international community should not be lulled into complacency by such self-serving rhetoric. The sad end of the saffron uprising, brought about not by compromise but by repression, offers a window of opportunity that the international community must seize. The world should finally wake up to the fact that Burma's suffering under its military dictatorship can no longer be swept under the carpet. If the sacrifices of the monks and other brave citizens of Burma are not to be in vain, the momentum of international pressure must continue.
While reporting to the Security Council on his mission to Burma during the 5 October session, UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari recommended two steps: 1) prodding the Burmese junta to "engage in an all-inclusive, participatory and transparent" process of consultations to broaden the constitution-drafting national convention that was boycotted by the opposition and resulted in a draft constitution that guarantees permanent military domination of the political system, and 2) the creation of a poverty-alleviation commission involving UN agencies to carry out humanitarian action.
These proposals, while useful, will not suffice. As the Western nations participating in the Security Council debate, including the US and the UK, pointed out, the immediate release of all protesters and political prisoners, including but not limited to Aung San Suu Kyi, is vital to determining the sincerity of the Burmese junta. The junta has offered to talk to her, albeit if she stops her "obstructive and confrontational stance," including her calls for international sanctions against the regime. But in the absence of other concerted measures by the international community, there is every danger that the junta will marginalize her from the political process and cement its monopoly on power.
Two steps are crucial: The first is the creation of an international contact group on Burma at the UN. This author's last commentary on Burma in YaleGlobal in 2005 – "Democracy in Burma: Does Anybody Really Care?" – suggested the creation of a process akin to the six-party talks in North Korea. Thailand's Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont made a similar suggestion to Gambari when the latter visited him on 15 October. Such a group should comprise China, India, Japan, the European Union, the US and Singapore as the current the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the 5 October Security Council debate, the absence of Japan and India was conspicuous. The purpose of this six-party contact group would be to carry out formal and informal consultations with the regime to stop further repression, prod it to open dialogue with Suu Kyi and reopen the national convention with opposition participation to create a genuinely democratic constitution that upholds civilian control over the military.
It would also have the function of applying peer pressure on Burma's two powerful neighbors, China and India, even though Indian support for the regime was a reactive response to China's vigorous influence-seeking in Burma in the first place. Both India and China have offered an economic and political lifeline to the regime, thereby sustaining its repressive apparatus.
The second step should be an in-principle agreement by the international community to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Burma. Such commissions are usually created after the regime accused of human-rights abuses is ousted from power. But in this case, agreement to create such a commission could have a salutary effect in preventing further violence against civilians by regime forces. Following the South African model, the commission could dangle amnesty before military officials not directly involved in committing atrocities. This would induce officers to disobey future orders to carry out violent repression and encourage those military and political leadership factions who are sympathetic to liberalization – especially in view of reports that some officers refused to carry out orders to attack protestors in the recent uprising.
In the meantime, ASEAN should resist any temptation to suspend or expel Burma from membership for the time being. I advocated such a move in the past (as reported by Peter Kammerer, "Suspend Yangon, Asean Urged: Scholar Says Alliance Must Press Junta to Reform," the South China Morning Post, 23 October 2004). But doing so now would be ill-advised, as it would allow the junta to retreat into a convenient posture of isolationism.
It will also look ridiculous if ASEAN moves from one extreme – shielding the junta from international sanctions through its "constructive engagement" policy – to another by suspending its membership, especially since ASEAN failed to impose any preconditions of political reform when it allowed Burma to join the association in 1997.
ASEAN has earned some international respect by expressing "revulsion" at the junta's violent repression of the peaceful uprising. By keeping Burma as an active member, ASEAN would call the junta's bluff now that the latter has pledged to engage in dialogue with the opposition, and "cooperate with the United Nations." As long as Burma remains a member, ASEAN should use every opportunity afforded by the intra-ASEAN meetings, which number in the hundreds each year, to persuade the junta to move towards democratization. This way, ASEAN will retain a say over Burma's political direction instead of allowing it to pass to outside nations. This is not "constructive engagement," which was in essence all "construction" of hotels and factories in Burma by Thai, Singaporean and Malaysia companies, with no "engagement," or dialogue with the regime on political reform.
If ASEAN's constant reminders on political reform prove to be too much for the junta and it pulls out of ASEAN on its own, then well and good. Such an outcome may be less preferable than changing the junta's mindset, but could enhance ASEAN credibility, paving the way for future sanctions. In the meantime, as some commentators have suggested, ASEAN members should, at the very least, snub the senior junta leaders by denying them and their families VIP treatment at their shopping centers and medical facilities.
Amitav Acharya is professor of Global Governance at the University of Bristol and director of its Governance Research Centre. Rights: © 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization YaleGlobal Online
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