Page last updated at 22:54 GMT, Tuesday, 26 July 2005 23:54 UK

Asean's face-saving solution

By Kylie Morris
BBC News, Vientiane

A supporter of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Friday, June 17, 2005
Burma is under pressure to improve its human rights record

The military government of Burma has turned down its opportunity to take up the chairmanship of the Asean group of South East Asian Nations next year, after intense pressure by member states.

Rangoon says it will be too busy building democracy to take over the chairmanship.

That is a relief for its neighbours, who were struggling to find the right way to ensure that their support for Burma did not come at the price of damage to Asean.

The European Union and the US had warned that they would likely boycott Asean meetings if Burma were to take the chair.

Both have imposed sanctions on Rangoon because of its poor human rights record, faltering reform effort and the continuing detention of thousands of political prisoners, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.


After the decision was announced in Laos' capital, Vientiane, Asean foreign ministers insisted it was Burma's own initiative.

But the outcome was orchestrated by states who wanted a way around the problem.

A visit last week to Rangoon by Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai is likely to have played some part in persuading the generals to defer.

Had Burma not chosen to capitulate, other Asean states say they could have lived with that decision.

However, Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon told the BBC that if Rangoon had insisted on taking the chair before its reforms were complete, it would have created an obstacle for the regional grouping.

He said he was happy that given the situation, Myanmar [Burma] had also felt that the interests of Asean must come first.

Custom-made solution

By skipping its chance to be chair next year, the military government also foregoes certain fringe benefits.


The role would not only have brought a much needed boost to the government's credibility and mended relations with its neighbours. It could also have brought infrastructure, investment and new business opportunities.

Instead, according to Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win, his government will focus on the business of national reconciliation and democratisation in 2006.

At a press conference at the summit, he described the draft constitution as two-thirds complete.

He said another session of the national convention should see it completed.

After that, he said, the constitution would be put to a referendum, and then followed by free and fair elections.

But this time, he said, "we have to empathise with the emergence of the national constitution".

It is a face-saving solution for a crisis which had threatened to challenge the cohesiveness and stability of Asean.

They have not broken with their code of non-interference in one another's affairs. At the same time they have asserted their right to act when one state threatens the whole.

There is no evidence that this marks a new-age Asean, excited by the possibility of democratic change.

This feels like a custom-made answer for a difficult situation - no more and no less.

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