Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

ASEAN and Political Change in Myanmar: Towards a Regional Initiative?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

ASEAN and Political Change in Myanmar: Towards a Regional Initiative?

Article excerpt

On 9 February 2008, Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) announced that a referendum on the final draft of the country's new constitution would be organized in May. It also indicated that there would be multi-party elections in 2010. Reacting to calls to include Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) in a belated broadening of the country's political process before the referendum, the military regime, headed by Senior General Than Shwe, made clear that it would pursue its roadmap to a "disciplined" democracy as planned. (1) Nevertheless, the regime's information minister stated that those who failed to participate in the National Convention (NC), which had worked out most of the new constitution's substance, would have the possibility of participating in the referendum and subsequent election. (2)

A week before the referendum, Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, causing massive devastation and loss of life, particularly in the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) delta. (3) Ignoring widespread international disbelief and criticism, the ruling junta nevertheless proceeded with the referendum in those areas not affected by the cyclone. In other areas the referendum was briefly postponed until 24 May. According to the SPDC, 98.12 per cent of eligible voters cast their votes in the referendum, with 92.48 per cent supporting the draft constitution. (4) Few observers believe that this outcome was not manipulated. While the constitution, which will effectively leave political power in the hands of the military commander-in-chief, was ratified and promulgated, Suu Kyi's house arrest was extended to May 2009.

Member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Myanmar joined in 1997, have for years been obliged to deal with the regional and international implications of the Myanmar ruling junta's refusal to accede to the demands both for political reconciliation and change as put forward by the international community and the grouping itself. At their recent 41st annual meeting, ASEAN foreign ministers expressed their "deep disappointment" over the extension of Suu Kyi's renewed house arrest, repeated the call by ASEAN leaders to release her and other political detainees, and reiterated the view that the Myanmar Government should engage in a meaningful dialogue with all groups, and work towards a peaceful transition to democracy in the near future. (5) ASEAN foreign ministers also encouraged Naypyidaw to work closely with the UN Secretary General and his Special Advisor on Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari. (6) Interestingly, ASEAN's collective position in 2008 appears to differ only in degree from the joint stance articulated after the Depanyin incident in May 2003 that marked the beginning of Suu Kyi's latest spell of detention. Then, foreign ministers urged Myanmar to resume its efforts towards national reconciliation and dialogue among all parties concerned leading to a peaceful transition to democracy, welcomed the assurances given by Myanmar that the measures taken following the incident were temporary and looked forward to the early lifting of restrictions placed on Suu Kyi and NLD members, and also reaffirmed their continued support for the efforts of the UNSG Special Representative Tan Sri Razali Ismail. (7)

The limited change in diplomatic rhetoric is notable given intervening developments, including the repeated failure by ASEAN Chairs to influence Myanmar's military leadership on political reconciliation and the September 2007 protests. Although Myanmar can influence the statements of the grouping, the continuity of public diplomacy could suggest not only that ASEAN's position on Myanmar has remained effectively unchanged, but also that ASEAN states do not necessarily see a role for the Association and/or individual members to go the extra mile to promote political change in Myanmar. Alternatively, the similarities in ASEAN's public pronouncements on Myanmar may primarily reflect ASEAN discord on how to deal with Myanmar, the agreed position towards Naypyidaw notwithstanding. …

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