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ASEAN Rejects West's Human Rights Tactics

Western leaders say Southeast Asia's inclusive policy toward Burma has failed to improve that country's poor human rights record; Asians say intervening in human rights policies could backfire

FEW Asian diplomats deny that the rights of many Burmese have been battered since 1988 as the ruling military junta crushed a popular pro-democracy movement. But the close of the July 24-26 meeting between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its neighbors and trading partners revealed a profound divergence in strategies for reprimanding countries guilty of human rights violations.

At the meeting, ASEAN member nations reiterated the group's "constructive engagement" policy toward Burma (officially called Myanmar). Thai Foreign Affairs Minister Arsa Sarasin indicated Burma might even join the group in the future.

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But nonmember trading partners such as the United States and Canada feel that including Burma would be a mistake.

"We would be underwhelmed," US Secretary of State James Baker III told the Monitor. "We congratulate ASEAN on not taking that step."

"We would not be enthusiastic," Canada's Assistant Deputy Minister Howard Balloch said. The Canadian delegation, backed by the European Community and other donor countries, promised to push the issue of an arms embargo against Burma onto the United Nations autumn agenda.

ASEAN, a group formed to promote regional cooperation, includes the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Vietnam and Laos joined Papua New Guinea as official observers for the first time at this meeting.

Human rights emerged as one of the central issues of the meeting, although ASEAN nations worked to keep it off the agenda. Burma's record received special scrutiny.

Donor countries appear to agree that ASEAN's policy of "constructive engagement" toward countries with tarnished human rights records is not working.

These countries "should not be treated in a way which implies legitimacy," a senior Canadian official said.

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But off the record, ASEAN delegates express frustration with their Western trading partners' confrontational tactics. They share a variety of cultural, political, and economic reasons for maintaining relations with Burma. Several delegates brand the West as patronizing and interventionist.

"The Burmese have to solve this problem by themselves. The Burmese junta understands this and understands the need for economic prosperity and is making progress at its own pace and on its own terms," an Asian diplomat says. "The important thing is whether this progress satisfies the 40 million Burmese rather than Western powers."

"Human rights is not the exclusive property of the developed world," says Philippine diplomat Romualdo Ong.

Another diplomat says: "Baker may not last after the November elections in the US; Burma will."

ASEAN representatives say they are concerned the precedent of intervening in their neighbor's human rights policies could backfire. One senior Asian diplomat notes, "Everybody has a skeleton in their closet."

The 700 Thais still allegedly missing in Thailand since pro-democracy demonstrations this May were not mentioned at the ASEAN meeting. And the Indonesian delegation worked to keep allegations about its own record in East Timor out of official discussions. The East Timor issue, however, has already caused problems in the European Community-ASEAN relationship.

British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd, who represented both Britain and the EC at the meeting, favors a more centrist position on how to deal with the issue of human rights.

"The issue will not go away," Mr. Hurd told the Monitor. But "we are not talking of the imposition of the values of one section of the world on another section with different values. We are talking about an understanding of shared values and agreement on how they can be applied."

A policy of "proportionate action" could prompt Britain and the EC to consider trade sanctions against Burma, rather than outright isolation, Hurd says, but all action has been stalled. Portugal, an EC member, refuses to allow further negotiations on a new trade agreement with ASEAN until Indonesia answers allegations of human rights violations in East Timor.

"We are already on the record as opposing what happened in Dili," Hurd said, referring to the Nov. 12 massacre by Indonesian troops of at least 50 civilians in the Timorese capital.

The ASEAN meeting ended with both sides agreeing to disagree. The EC and ASEAN will meet again in Manila in October.

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