The Black Sheep of the Family: How Burma Defines its Foreign Relations with ASEAN
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When Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, the military junta was attracted by the prospect of achieving some form of political legitimacy while gaining access to alternative markets to those that had been denied by Western sanctions. ASEAN, in turn, was more than happy to gain access to Burma’s abundant natural resources and justified its actions through its policy of “constructive engagement”. Burma had only emerged from relative isolation in the early 1990s and was experimenting with partial economic liberalization. ASEAN also hoped to offset the strategic impact that Burma’s close alliance with the People’s Republic of China could have in the region. As Western pressure increased on the military junta, and on ASEAN, the Burmese generals have discovered that the original terms of their membership agreement may have changed. ASEAN appeared to redefine its principle of non-interference in the domestic politics of member states following the Depayin incident of 2003 where Aung San Suu Kyi was attacked by members of the SPDC’s mass organization – the USDA. Her arrest and continued detention brought intense international pressure, and embarrassment, to bear upon ASEAN leading up to Burma’s chairmanship in 2006. Despite the announcement of a Road Map to “disciplined democracy”, Burma forfeited its Chair in 2005 and has since maintained cool relations with the regional organization while seeking support from its close ally in China. ASEAN continues to redefine its principle of “enhanced interaction” with Burma and will likely wish to be seen, in the eyes of the international community, to be criticizing the generals in order to protect its own credibility. However, signs have appeared that indicate the Burmese generals are returning to their isolationist tendencies and would welcome some kind of economic autarchy. While this is consistent with their traditional “neutral” foreign policy since independence, it also means that the debate over sanctions or engagement is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The generals are building themselves a new administrative capital in remote Pyinmana and hope to have all ministries, civil servants, and a military headquarters relocated to the new site this year. It has also been necessary for the generals to court China and Russia in order to counter a move by the US to have Burma placed on the UN Security Council’s agenda. Another indication of the generals’ isolationism is their fear of granting any autonomy to non-state organizations such as UN agencies, NGOs, and INGOs operating inside the country, as witnessed by their introduction of strict new guidelines relating to these groups. While ASEAN continues to redefine its position with Burma, it may increasingly find that Burma’s tightening of relations with China will help to define it for them. In addition, China’s presence in the ASEAN+3 concept opens new diplomatic avenues through which Burma could be approached. Because of the numerous regional security problems that continue to originate from inside Burma (drugs, HIV/AIDS, illegal cross-border migration), ASEAN will wish to maintain good relations with the country’s military leaders. However, it is difficult to see how any meaningful political influence ASEAN might bring to bear on Burma in the near future could come about without the generals seeking Beijing’s advice.
© 2006 Griffith Asia Institute and the Author(s). The attached file is reproduced here in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher. Please refer to the publisher’s website for further information.