The U.S. and Southeast Asian nations will tell Myanmar’s military junta to hold credible and fair elections in which pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi can participate, according to a document obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.
Similar calls have been issued in the past by both sides, but it carries more political significance and weight this time because of the setting in which it is being made -- at the first-ever summit between President Barack Obama and leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar, on Sunday.
A draft copy of a statement obtained by the AP says that Myanmar’s 2010 general elections “must be conducted in a free, fair, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community.”
The statement was to be issued at the end of the summit, according to officials who prepared the document.
The United States has signalled a policy shift by seeking to engage Myanmar, also known as Burma, rather than pursue a one-track strategy of sanctions to bring about democratic change in the impoverished country, which has been ruled by the military since 1962.
The generals in charge have steadfastly snubbed the international community, including its friends in ASEAN, by refusing to free Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, who has spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention.
The sanctions policy enforced by successive U.S. administrations had until now prevented the U.S. from having a deeper interaction with ASEAN because of Myanmar’s membership in it.
But that changed when the U.S. sent two top diplomats to Myanmar for talks with the generals last week. On Sunday, Obama will sit at the same table with Myanmar’s Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein at the U.S.-ASEAN summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit earlier that day.
“The statement we’re trying to make here is that we’re not going to let the Burmese tail wag the ASEAN dog here,” said Jeffrey Bader, a National Security Council official. “We’re going to meet with all 10, and we’re not going to punish the other nine simply because Burma is in the room.”
“One of the frustrations that we’ve had ... over recent years has been that the inability to have interaction with Burma has prevented certain kinds of interaction with ASEAN as a whole,” Bader told reporters in Washington, D.C.
But he stressed that the meeting was not called “for the purpose of a bilateral or a private conversation between the two.”
Also, U.S. sanctions will remain until democratic reforms take place.
Still, it’s a “breakthrough” that the U.S.-ASEAN are holding a summit, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said, because “in the past, Myanmar was always a sticking issue.”
In the spirit of give and take, the flexibility that the U.S. has shown has also allowed ASEAN to use strong words against Myanmar in the leaders’ declaration.
“The Leaders called on the government of Myanmar to help create the conditions for credible elections including by initiating a dialogue with all stockholders to ensure that the process is fully inclusive,” said the draft statement. “Inclusive” refers to allowing Suu Kyi to take part in the elections.
Min Lwin, a top Myanmar diplomat, told the AP on Sunday that the junta may free Suu Kyi soon to let her prepare her party for the elections.
However, there is no indication that the government will allow Suu Kyi to run in the election. Myanmar’s constitution includes provisions that bar Suu Kyi from holding office and ensure the military a controlling stake in government.