Asean fears Myanmar “disintegration” if pushed too far


Singapore : Despite mounting international pressure for tougher action against errant member Myanmar, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) is not expected to do anything out of the ordinary when its leaders will meet here this week.

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While the 13th Asean Leaders’ summit comes just two months after a violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Myanmar, the crisis did not merit a special agenda during the annual meeting of the 10-member regional bloc.

Officials, however, assured that the Myanmar issue would be discussed during the summit, when the leaders were expected to ask Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein to explain the junta’s violent response to the mass protests led by Buddhist monks.

After the meeting, the leaders would probably again express disappointment, impatience or even “revulsion” over the recent crackdowns in Yangon as well as call on the military junta to hasten the implementation of democratic reforms as promised. But such statements and rebukes would merely be made to appease critics.

Diplomats said the group’s non-confrontational attitude towards Myanmar stems from fears that any forceful bid to push the military junta out of power would lead to the country’s disintegration, much like the Balkans.

“The fear is that you break up Myanmar if you use more than threat of force because (opposition leader) Aung San Suu Kyi, despite all her good intentions, doesn’t have the strength to govern,” one south-east Asian diplomat who requested anonymity said.

The diplomat warned that if Myanmar plunges into civil war, neighbours such as China, Thailand, Cambodia and India would rush in to stake a claim on lands near their borders.

The diplomat noted that constructive engagement with Myanmar was still the best option now since Asean does not have the military “capacity” to do much and critics such as the US and the EU have failed to “do more than what they are already doing now”.

Even with the scheduled signing on Tuesday of a landmark charter that supposedly commits all members to the principles of democracy and protection of human rights, not much change can be expected with the way Asean deals with Myanmar.

Democracy and human rights groups, the US Senate and other critics have called on Asean to either expel or suspend Myanmar. They have also urged the bloc not to allow Yangon to sign the charter until the crisis is resolved.

But Asean leaders were not likely to heed any of these calls when they meet in Singapore on Tuesday.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also noted that the situation in Myanmar was “not sustainable,” and admitted that Asean’s influence on Myanmar was limited.

Asean supports efforts by the special envoy of the UN Secretary General, Ibrahim Gambari, to jump-start dialogues between the military junta and opposition groups towards the implementation of genuine democratic reforms, a Filipino diplomat said.

“The feeling of Asean is let’s see how far the Gambari process can go and at this stage, coming up with alternate mechanisms may not necessarily be helpful to Gambari,” the diplomat said.

Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are the members of Asean.