Marwaan Macan-Markar

The rumblings spreading through South-east Asian capitals against Burma’s military regime is taking on the quality of a long overdue confession — namely that a political principle considered sacrosanct by the region’s governments has failed. The principle that stands exposed is the idea of ‘’non-interference,’’ by which the 10 members who belong to the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed to avoid commenting about the domestic political affairs of Burma. As the recent weeks have revealed, some of the leading members of ASEAN are prepared to turn their backs on the non-interference principle because of Burma emerging as an economic and political liability. This stems from the likelihood of Burma, which the junta renamed Myanmar, becoming the chairman of ASEAN in 2006 — a fact that is expected to damage the regional group’s international image. Already the US government and the European Union, which have imposed sanctions against Burma, have issued warnings against the junta leading ASEAN. April, in fact, will serve up two opportunities to gauge how deep such anti-junta sentiments are in the countries displaying their pro-democracy commitments.

Both parliamentarians and foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines will be gathering first in Manila and then in Cebu for two separate meetings. In Manila, it will be a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) that begins on Apr. 3. At this gathering, due to attract about 1,500 lawmakers from Asia, Europe and the Americas, the focus will be on the state of democracy in the world. Already, legislators from the Philippines have declared that they will use the occasion to support a move shaped by parliamentarians from other ASEAN countries, including Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, to prevent Burma from becoming the chairman of the regional grouping in 2006. The reason that has fuelled such an unprecedented political coalition to openly flout the non-intervention principle is unequivocal: the Burmese junta has refused to give up its stranglehold on power and let democracy flourish. Similar thinking appears to be behind the critical comments levelled against Rangoon by the Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian governments.

Burma’s military leaders will get a taste of how serious this new tone is when ASEAN’s foreign ministers meet in the Philippines city of Cebu from Apr. 10-12. The 10 members of ASEAN are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), a regional human rights lobby views the gathering momentum to criticise the domestic political affairs in Burma as a ‘’turning point for ASEAN.’’

Yet this trend has its detractors among ASEAN members, not all of whom are guardians of human rights and democracy. After all, the region has two countries that are one-party states — communist ruled Laos and Vietnam, and a country ruled by an absolute monarch — Brunei. What is more, both Malaysia and Singapore still retain a few authoritarian features.

Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe was a beneficiary of ASEAN’s policies when his country joined it in the mid-1990s. And out of it grew ASEAN’s policy of ‘’constructive engagement,’’ by which the regional body was hoping to protect Burma from international criticism and give it time to reform. But actual realities are a different matter. The twin policies of non-interference and constructive engagement have helped the junta remain in power. — IPS