Are continued Burma sanctions straining some countries' relations with ASEAN?


When ASEAN leaders gathered in Phnom Penh in early April, the questions surrounding Burma concerned when, rather than if, international sanctions would be lifted. 

Burma had just staged key by-elections, during which opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi emerged victorious. The feeling from ASEAN officials was that Burma, should be rewarded.

The international community responded. The United States, Australia, the European Union—all announced a relaxation of their sanctions. But for ASEAN, the goal is to have sanctions completely removed. Burma, after all, is scheduled set to hold the chair of the bloc in less than two years.

Though there has been little public discussion about Burma during ministers’ meetings this week, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan says the region’s leaders are still paying attention.

“I think the US and the EU are adopting two separate strategies," he says. "The EU is suspending sanctions, meaning anything can go, but it can be imposed again. The US is relaxing it step by step, so two strategies. We appreciate that. But we hope that the pace will be quick, and that evolution inside Myanmar will warrant a serious reconsideration of the measures put in place for the sanctions.”

Surin rejects suggestions that the international community’s reluctance to completely remove sanctions, is causing friction with ASEAN.

"I call it a sense of frustration, that things are not moving faster," he says.

"But as I say, in the end, we have to live with it. It's the sovereign right of those dialogue partners, those major countries and groupings, to decide.

"But what we can do is we can demonstrate to them, as far we are concerned, things are moving in the right direction. We are confident that it's not going to be reversed. The government of Myanmar, the people of Myanmar, deserve a certain degree of relaxation. The process should move fast."


Sanctions harder to remove

Some observers, however, have a more blunt assessment. Carlyle Thayer, a specialist on ASEAN affairs at the University of New South Wales, says the EU's refusal so far to completely remove sanctions has strained its relationship with ASEAN.

“ASEAN wants the sanctions against Burma removed, because it discriminates against one of its members," Thayer says.

"They see the reforms as going positively. The European Union, the United States and Australia, Norway, which have lifted or suspended their sanctions but not ended them, still want to keep them in place so if there's any backsliding, they can be reimposed.”

One problem, Thayer says, is that ending sanctions is much more complicated than imposing them in the first place.

“Sanctions are so complex because you have to have unanimity in the EU,and in the United States you have congressionally imposed sanctions and US presidential executive orders. So in both areas it's a huge maze. It’s easier to suspend, than it is to get complete unanimity.”

For now though, Surin says he is looking ahead to 2014, when Burma will take the ASEAN chair.

“It was our encouragement, that if you want to chair ASEAN, which is both the responsibility and the prestige and the honor, you will have to do a lot of things … and ASEAN I think has been instrumental. Now we are helping them. We are opening up opportunities for them. They come and observe meetings like this, meetings like in Indonesia. Working their way into 2014.”

Looking ahead

While ASEAN has a large stake in ensuring Burma’s chairmanship is as trouble-free as possible, Burma’s government, too, stands to benefit domestically from becoming chair. General elections are planned for just a year later, in 2015.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political analyst at Kyoto University, says if Burma is serious about staging truly free and fair elections this time around, chairing ASEAN could go a long way to boosting the government’s image, within its own borders.

“I think 2014 is such a crucial year for both Burma and ASEAN," Pavin says.

"2014, it would be just only one year before the general election in Burma. The fact that the Burmese leadership want the ASEAN chairmanship so much is because this could legitimize the regime so as to be able to win the election in 2015.

"People might not think it's important but it's very important in the context of Burmese politics. To be able to open up the country, to bring a lot of potential ASEAN investors including the ASEAN dialogue partners, this would be a time to showcase Burma. So it would be very much important for Burma.”

By the same token, ASEAN will be just as eager to ensure that Burma’s chairmanship runs smoothly, Pavin says. And that may mean the priority for other issues, like human rights, may fall by the wayside.

From news reports originally filed for VOA.