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Malaysia reluctant to hand over the baton of ASEAN to Myanmar

By Verghese Mathews - posted Friday, 1 April 2005

I am sure that there are many like me who will say “syabas” (well done) to Mr Nazri Abdul Aziz, the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs for his widely quoted statement last week in local and international media that "Myanmar's turn to be the chairman of ASEAN (ought) to be suspended and given to other countries until democratic reforms are carried out".

He also declared tellingly that "a motion to suspend Burma's chairmanship would be introduced in Malaysia's parliament next week".

This is surely a seriously considered commentary that is obviously well calculated to send a clear signal to Yangon that Malaysia means business.


It is interesting that the Myanmar issue is now reaching the various ASEAN Parliaments. Earlier in the month Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo expressed frustration and disappointment in the Singapore Parliament that Myanmar's roadmap to democracy was still without a timeline; that UN efforts to facilitate and advance the national reconciliation process in Myanmar were unsuccessful; and that Aung San Suu Kyi remained in detention.

Likewise, I am sure that any discussion in the Malaysian parliament will see an even greater outpouring of frustration and disappointment. Some of the parliamentarians can be expected to be tougher and more demanding than Minister Nazri. But would Myanmar's military rulers really care what Singaporean and Malaysian parliamentarians have to say? They have not been bothered by more strident criticism before. Why should they now? If need be they can always adopt the famous ostrich posture and ask themselves what ASEAN can do!
This would lead to the question how serious Malaysia is in spearheading this initiative to prevent Myanmar from taking over as Chairman of ASEAN in July 2006 and whether the momentum can be sustained. I would suggest that Malaysia is very serious indeed.
For a start, there is precedence. Way back in 1961 it was the then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman who championed the cause against apartheid in South Africa which subsequently led to Pretoria walking out of the Commonwealth and declaring itself a Republic. Two years later Malaysia worked with India for South Africa's ousting from the UN.

Second, I would suggest that the clarion is deliberately sounded early enough, before Malaysia assumes the chairmanship in four months time, to encourage other ASEAN members to join Malaysia in pushing for Burma to defer its chairmanship. Malaysia understandably wants this to be an ASEAN effort. It knows well the extent of the frustration within the organisation on this issue. It realises that Myanmar knows this too but is sitting tight. By individual ASEAN countries expressing their unhappiness openly, the pressure is calculated to increase on Myanmar.
Thirdly, over the years Malaysia has demonstrated that whenever it assumed ASEAN chairmanship, it is single-mindedly focused on moving the regional grouping forward. It does not want to be distracted by unnecessary and unhelpful theatrics.

Unfortunately, all present indications are that much time and energy will indeed be wasted on the Myanmar issue.
As Chairman, much of the fire fighting will fall on Malaysia. Worse, if in fact Myanmar is to assume the chairmanship, it will be Malaysia that will have to do the honours of passing on the baton. Yes, Malaysia is indeed serious - it does not want to be the baton-passer.

Better for those presently in power in Myanmar to realise that the proverbial bells have begun to toll. Only recently former US ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, declared "by holding these meetings in Rangoon, ASEAN runs a serious risk that countries which attended regularly for a quarter century will not show (up)". The message was not directed at Myanmar but at ASEAN and Holbrooke was advancing a considered opinion.

Myanmar is not easily threatened by rhetoric but analysts in its military corridors would not have failed to recognise that the ASEAN tide is uncharacteristically building up against Yangon at a time when the ruling junta is itself facing internal problems. The analysts probably realise that this is no time to play the recalcitrant and that it is no time for bravado even though deep down they realise that the fear of the military leaders is that every concession to the democratic forces is one loosened grip on the levers of power. The analysts need to point out that power is flowing out of the military hands sooner than later.


More importantly, analysts in Yangon need to take cognisance of an important point - no one in ASEAN is pushing Myanmar to a corner - it is already there of its own making. Instead what ASEAN is really attempting is to arrive at an acceptable solution to the problem.

Elsewhere, it has been mentioned that there is still one opportunity for Myanmar to change this unprecedented tide - by themselves declaring that this time around they will pass the chairmanship to the next in line, which is the Philippines. Such a move will be painful and not in the character of the military rulers. Most analysts dismiss this option totally as they do not believe the military is enlightened enough to see the advantages of such a move.

I hope the military leaders in Yangon will prove these analysts wrong.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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