ASEAN Rejects West's Human Rights Tactics Western Leaders Say Southeast Asia's Inclusive Policy toward Burma Has Failed to Improve That Country's Poor Human Rights Record; Asians Say Intervening in Human Rights Policies Could Backfire

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FEW Asian diplomats deny that the rights of many Burmese have been battered since 1988 as the ruling military junta crushed a popular pro-democracy movement. But the close of the July 24-26 meeting between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its neighbors and trading partners revealed a profound divergence in strategies for reprimanding countries guilty of human rights violations.

At the meeting, ASEAN member nations reiterated the group's "constructive engagement" policy toward Burma (officially called Myanmar). Thai Foreign Affairs Minister Arsa Sarasin indicated Burma might even join the group in the future.

But nonmember trading partners such as the United States and Canada feel that including Burma would be a mistake.

"We would be underwhelmed," US Secretary of State James Baker III told the Monitor. "We congratulate ASEAN on not taking that step."

"We would not be enthusiastic," Canada's Assistant Deputy Minister Howard Balloch said. The Canadian delegation, backed by the European Community and other donor countries, promised to push the issue of an arms embargo against Burma onto the United Nations autumn agenda.

ASEAN, a group formed to promote regional cooperation, includes the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Vietnam and Laos joined Papua New Guinea as official observers for the first time at this meeting.

Human rights emerged as one of the central issues of the meeting, although ASEAN nations worked to keep it off the agenda. Burma's record received special scrutiny.

Donor countries appear to agree that ASEAN's policy of "constructive engagement" toward countries with tarnished human rights records is not working.

These countries "should not be treated in a way which implies legitimacy," a senior Canadian official said.

But off the record, ASEAN delegates express frustration with their Western trading partners' confrontational tactics. They share a variety of cultural, political, and economic reasons for maintaining relations with Burma. Several delegates brand the West as patronizing and interventionist.

"The Burmese have to solve this problem by themselves. The Burmese junta understands this and understands the need for economic prosperity and is making progress at its own pace and on its own terms," an Asian diplomat says. …