The news blackout imposed by Burma’s military junta on its decision to forego its turn as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year shows that it has received a severe blow to its prestige. Indeed, the decision was far from voluntary. Junta leader Senior General Than Shwe “lost face” and promptly disappeared from public view so completely that some Burmese thought he had died.
The protagonists that pressured the regime into relinquishing the ASEAN chair were not the usual Western human rights campaigners, but Burma’s closest ASEAN neighbors. This must have made the retreat doubly painful for the generals, as ASEAN was previously one of the junta’s strongest shields against international pressure.
For ASEAN, the episode was a lesson in assertiveness. It showed that persistent pressure works better than the “constructive engagement” that it had pursued, to no avail, for the eight years since Burma joined the organization.
This shift has been led by an embryonic grouping of elected regional parliamentarians known as the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Democracy in Myanmar (AIPMC), of which I am a member. Established last November to spur progress on democratization in Burma, parliamentarians from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Cambodia took the unprecedented step of crossing national and party lines to review critically ASEAN policy on Burma, seek the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and disqualify Burma from chairing.