Good Neighbours: ASEAN and Burma's Human Rights Record

By Gim, Susan | Harvard International Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Good Neighbours: ASEAN and Burma's Human Rights Record


Gim, Susan, Harvard International Review


By opening its doors to Burma on July 29, 1997, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) granted unmerited political legitimacy to a rogue state with an egregious human rights record. ASEAN justified its policy as an attempt at "constructive engagement." ASEAN must now choose between realizing its promise to create incentives for the government to foster change, or allowing the status quo ante to continue.

Much of the international community considers Burma a pariah because of its tumultuous political past and more importantly, its oppressive regime. In 1990, the ruling junta, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), annuled fairly democratic elections which had placed the National League for Democracy (NLD) in power. Further tightening its asphyxiating grip upon the Burmese people, SLORC began a reign of terror, ignoring the protests of many nations and outside organizations. Still, despite this deplorable record, ASEAN invited Burma to join its league.

Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand founded ASEAN in 1967 in order to establish a framework that would promote economic growth, peace, and security in the region. The membership of this economic-security organization was later expanded to include most of the nations of southeast Asia. However, the strategic desire to have ten powers in the ASEAN roster led the organization to integrate Laos and Burma prematurely. The entrance of Cambodia into the association did not materialize because of Prime Minister Hun Sen's bloody coup d'etat in July 1997. ASEAN's exclusion of Cambodia suggests a double standard, by which Burma was offered inclusion for strategic, realpolitik reasons. Burma's acceptance into this prestigious regional forum was precipitated by a series of concessions and diplomatic overtures that virtually guaranteed its inclusion. As the leader of another authoritarian state, President Suharto of Indonesia led a personal crusade for Burmese membership, because of his vital interest in maintaining the precarious balance of power between democratic and authoritarian states within ASEAN. Though Suharto is one of the most vocal leaders within ASEAN, he has been unable to counteract the influence of democratic nations in creating the platform and policies of the organization.

Overt machinations toward the integration of Burma into the alliance would have aroused much suspicion and questioning of Suharto's motivation and intent. Therefore, Suharto determined that the best way to bolster Burma's entrance was through the establishment of an official sponsor, preferably a democratic one. The Philippines was the country best suited for this job, and there was an element of reciprocity that motivated the Philippines to support Burma. President Ramos of the Philippines had been lobbying to appoint Rodolfo Severino as the new Secretary General of ASEAN, and Suharto's support was integral to the success of the initiative. Thus, moral legitimacy to Burma's inclusion was conveyed via the Philippines through a series of political maneuvers.

The political and moral legitimacy that has been granted to Burma through entrance into ASEAN has been challenged in light of the flagrant continuation of human rights violations and the failure of the military junta to begin political and democratic reforms. The current government, for instance, refuses to acknowledge the elections of 1990 and refuses to grant the National League for Democracy a voice within the Burmese government. …

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