Myanmar's easy ride

THE MILITARY RULERS of Myanmar have snatched a diplomatic victory at the just concluded Bali summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). When the junta rearrested Aung San Suu Kyi last May, the 10-nation grouping made a surprising departure from its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member-states to demand her release. It held out hope that the Nobel laureate would be freed before the summit. But that did not happen. Instead, ASEAN leaders seem tamely to have accepted Myanmar's claim that it is committed to democracy. In a joint statement, they welcomed Myanmar's "seven-point road map" to democracy announced recently by the Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt, even though it contains no time frame for implementation. They have also accepted the junta's explanation that by recently moving Ms. Suu Kyi from a secret prison to imprisonment in her home, it has made a major political concession to the jailed leader.

ASEAN's readiness to believe Myanmar may have been due to its well-known dislike of confrontation between member-states and its fears that the summit might be hijacked by this issue, thus jeopardising discussions on regional trade and security. But by accommodating Myanmar's uniformed rulers yet again, the regional bloc has put its own commitment to democracy on the line. Ms. Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the last 15 years in detention, was released in May 2002. But as her popularity was too much for the generals to tolerate, her freedom proved short-lived. Since her re-arrest earlier this year, ASEAN, which defied world opinion to admit Myanmar as a member in 1997, took steps, unprecedented for it, to sort out the issue. The former Foreign Minister of Indonesia, Ali Alatas, visited Myanmar in an effort to secure the release of Ms. Suu Kyi. Other ASEAN members went so far as to issue statements demanding her release.

Evidently, Myanmar's generals did not take them seriously. Even though Ms. Suu Kyi is allowed no visitors at her home, General Nyunt claimed at the summit that she was no longer under arrest. On his road map to democracy, the first step is the revival of a national convention to draft a new constitution but the Prime Minister has not said if Ms. Suu Kyi or her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will participate in it. In letting all this go unchallenged after its initial activism on her behalf, ASEAN has only reinforced Myanmar's confidence that the grouping will not press the issue beyond a point. The helplessness of some of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the developing world in dealing with a government that is little more than a bully in uniform is puzzling. After all, Myanmar needs ASEAN more than the other way round. The regional grouping might profess to believe that the best way to achieve democracy and reconciliation in Myanmar is to remain engaged with the military regime, however repressive and brutal it might be, rather than take a confrontational stand. But not keeping the issue of democracy constantly in focus cannot be the way. For engagement to yield positive results, ASEAN must not let up pressure on Myanmar. Countries with influence in the region — that includes India, which too must follow a policy of critical engagement with Myanmar — must at least ask for a guarantee that the junta will allow Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD to participate in the process it has outlined for a return to democracy. Myanmar should be persuaded to set its house in order before 2006, when it is due to take up the ASEAN chair.