By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
Published on August 27, 2009
A move to seek a pardon from Burma's military junta for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has gone nowhere after senior Asean officials failed to get a consensus for the plan at a meeting in Jakarta last week.
Most international media misinterpreted a statement by Indonesia's spokesman on the outcome of the meeting last Friday. They headlined their reports that "Asean officials agreed on a joint appeal for Suu Kyi's release".
A court in Burma sentenced the opposition leader to a further 18 months under house arrest for breaching conditions of her detention after an American, John Yettaw, swam across Inya Lake to her house in May. The American was deported last week but Suu Kyi looks set to serve her term. An appeal against the decision has not been considered yet.
Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya proposed that Asean ask junta chief, Senior General Than Shwe, to grant Suu Kyi a pardon.
Senior officials at Asean, including Burma's representative, debated the Thai proposal last Thursday and Friday to find a common stance for the group to appeal for her release.
But they could not agree on a common stance because representatives from Laos and Vietnam opposed the plan and insisted the Burmese court ruling was a domestic affair in which other members of the group should not intervene.
Senior officials from other member states failed to convince Laos and Vietnam to change their minds. They created a way to save face for all by recommending respective officials relay the Thai proposal to their governments.
At the end of the meeting, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah merely said: "Officials agreed that a joint appeal is a good idea and they recommended that foreign ministers take follow-up action".
Such a statement cannot be interpreted as an agreement. It is normal at Asean to refer decisions to higher levels when officials at lower levels fail to find common ground on some issues. This is the Asean way of "agreeing to disagree".
In fact foreign ministers of all states, including Burma's Nyan Win, had already been informed about the proposal. They don't need their senior officials to recommend anything. Prior to the senior official meeting in Jakarta, Foreign Minister Kasit contacted many of his counterparts including Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia to discuss the idea.
Newer members of Asean - Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Vietnam - usually take the same stance and chose to adhere to the Asean taboo of non-interference in fellow states' domestic affairs. Lobbying them to change their stance on this can be very difficult.
As of Tuesday, Laos and Vietnam maintained their stance that they did not want to interfere in Burma's domestic affairs, while Cambodia was moderate about the matter but preferred to take the same position, according to an Asean official.
Asean foreign ministers are not due to meet until they gather in New York late next month for the United Nations General Assembly. That means the proposal to seek a pardon for Suu Kyi is unlikely to be considered before then.
Foreign Minister Kasit seemed to have no idea how to turn his plan into reality. He told reporters on Monday the pardon was no longer an issue. He said he had conveyed Asean's views on political developments in Burma several times and hoped the junta leaders would understand the situation.
If Asean gives up, Suu Kyi's predicament could become a mounting issue for the group at international forums. From now on, Asean will have to bear the brunt of Burma's problems at all forums around the globe, including the UN next month and a summit with partners from Asia and the Pacific in Thailand in October. If the situation in Burma is raised in meetings, it could overshadow other initiatives and cooperation.
Asean needs to make more effort to engage and frequently communicate with the junta to explain that the country has a chance to avoid international isolation by simply being more accommodating to its domestic opposition.
Burma is not only a problem for Asean but a challenge for the group to overcome. If the regional body gives up or fails, Asean will be relevant no longer.