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ASEAN won't budge on Myanmar.
Asean won't budge on Myanmar
The United States' plan to impose sanctions on new
investments in Myanmar seems to have given rise to theories that
Washington's move was a message to Asean, which intends to admit
Myanmar into its fold. HARPAJAN SINGH looks at some of the
theories and rumours that have been floated by diplomats and
businessmen in the region.
FOR most politicians, the United States' move to ban
new investments in Myanmar came as no surprise.
The announcement on Tuesday came a week after US
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued a warning to Myanmar
authorities that unless "clouds of repression" were lifted, economic
sanctions would be applied.
And more importantly, the United States went ahead
with its threat which was timed a month before Asean foreign ministers meet
on May 31 in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the pending inclusion of
Myanmar, together with Laos and Cambodia into the South-East Asian
But what is more interesting is the speculation that
has begun over what the next US move will be to pressure Myanmar into
democratic reforms ala-Washington and how far the United States will go
to isolate Yangon.
Observers who predict more harsh measures from
Washington feel President Bill Clinton had only fired the first salvo
at Myanmar and that the message he wanted to put across was meant for Asean
which was gearing to admit Myanmar.
One rumour circulating is that the next course of
action will be against Asean member states in terms of economic and trade
relations which Washington may downgrade unless Asean towed the line.
Another rumour has it that Albright will boycott the
July Asean Ministerial Meeting-Post Ministerial Dialogue in Kuala Lumpur
where it is widely speculated that Asean will announce Yangon's entry
>From the business circles comes a theory that the
United States may boycott Asean through GSP moves if the grouping did
not put off Myanmar's membership until Yangon showed human rights
The propagators of this theory also speak of the US
bill on extra-territorial laws which empowers Washington to act against
companies from countries which invest in any country which has been the
target of economic sanctions.
Others express worry that the United States may pressure economic
powers in Asia, namely Japan and South Korea, to
retaliate against Asean if the grouping stayed adamant in its quest to
absorb Myanmar despite Clinton's displeasure.
Is the Unites States likely to go that far? It would,
perhaps, if it could garner support but judging from the developments and
responses so far, it is highly unlikely that Washington will resort to arm
twisting other states to follow its move.
Clinton said on Tuesday that the sanctions were in
retaliation to "deepening repression" by Yangon's military leaders.
"We believe that as Aung San Suu Kyi has said, the
sanctions can help the democracy movement in Burma," he said, referring to
the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader who has appealed repeatedly
US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns
elaborated that Washington would try to persuade other states to join
it in isolating Myanmar and would talk to Asian and European allies
and partners and hope they may follow suit.
Diplomats agree that the message was to some extent
directed at Asean. But judging from the response that came from Asean
governments, it certainly seemed to have fallen short of the desired
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad came out
strongly on Wednesday to say that the sanction would not affect
Asean's decision to admit Myanmar and that "we are going to work very
hard" to get Myanmar in.
On Thursday, Dr Mahathir went a step further to emphasise that he would
build up a strong case for Myanmar's entry and
questioned the rationale of
sanctions which he said would hurt the people more
than government officials, who could still afford to lead their fine
His Thai counterpart Chavalit Yongchaiyudh said "Asean
will stick to its agreements and our decision will not depend on other
A Singapore foreign ministry spokesman suggested that
the announcement of sanctions may have been prompted by political
considerations in Washington.
The reference was obviously at the Whitewater case
relating to the property and loan scandal to which Clinton and his
wife Hilary have been linked by political opponents.
China was quick to join Asean states to denounce the
US sanctions. Even Japan and Australia, refused to go along with
Washington so much for Burns plan to get Asian allies to join Washington.
Secondly, Clinton is well aware of the Asean-Europe
foreign ministers meeting in Singapore in February where Asean defended
Myanmar's entry into the grouping and refused to budge despite
pressure from the European Union.
The United States would also not risk losing out in
terms of new opportunities in South-East Asia by angering Asean,
especially when Asean has forged strong economic ties with the
European Union to jointly develop the Mekong Basin area encompassing
Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Yunnan province in China.
It would also be unwise to anger Asean which may erode the grouping's
commitment in the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (Apec)
which is Washington's main vehicle to stay economically engaged
in this region.
Asean, which will become a 10 member grouping, would
certain wield substantial influence as a caucus in Apec, which
thrives on the principle of consensus of all members in decision making.
Coming to the question of the United States boycotting
the AMM-PMC in July, this appears to be a far-fetched theory.
For one, this will be Albright's first PMC and
official visit to this part of the world.
Further, things have not really gone the way the
United States may have expected as far as the sanctions are concerned.
While there were cheers from Myanmars in exile and
student groups, US businessmen whose total investments in Myanmar
account for about US$240 million (RM600 million) came out boldly to
criticise Clinton's decision.
Among them was Unocal chairman Roger Beach who
defended the US oil giant's investment in Myanmar saying he was
"disappointed" but that Unocal remained committed to the US$1.2 billion (RM3
billion) Yadana project.
He argued that economic sanctions were
counterproductive as "they hurt people, not regimes" and they cut off
American companies from places in the world "where we should be involved."
Beach added that politicians and activists were wrong
in thinking a pullout would force a change of government in Myanmar.
And how does Myanmar feel about the sanctions?
Its diplomats say they expected it as the United
States had been taking steps one after another over the past few years which
included a ban on US visas for SLORC leaders.
Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, SLORC's first secretary commented that
"it's not a problem for us. We don't feel very sorry
about this because we have many friends in countries around the region who
understand us," he said in dismissing describing charges against SLORC of
human rights violations as unfounded.
A Malaysian diplomat said the United States had its
right to impose sanctions if that was how its people felt but
Washington would have to realise that Myanmar and its immediate
neighbours knew the situation better.
>From the looks of it, the ban may just have accelerated and strengthened
the Asean leaders' resolve to admit Myanmar into the
grouping this year perhaps as early as in July.
[Star, 26 April 1997].