HONG KONG Confusion and double standards reign on both sides of U.S.-Southeast Asia relationships. The same week that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was snubbing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by declining to attend its upcoming annual meeting of foreign ministers in Vientiane, Laos, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore was in Washington signing a new strategic framework agreement with the United States.
Although she has not said so explicitly, Rice’s decision appears to be a warning to Asean that America’s relationship with the group will be downgraded should it allow Myanmar to take over the chairmanship of the group next year.
It is a timely gesture that may concentrate the minds of Asean members still hoping that Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, will rescue them from their predicament by declining the chairmanship. That remains a possibility but goes against the grain of the assertive Myanmar boss, Than Shwe, particularly now that the more flexible former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt is locked away in jail. Shwe’s recent release of some 250 political prisoners, including some prominent members of the National League for Democracy, seems aimed at mollifying Asean and giving the impression that with Khin Nyunt out of the way there can be real progress toward democracy.
It should, however, be hard even for Asean partners to believe such fables. There are probably at least another 1,400 political prisoners, and Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. Myanmar, like China, is adept at well-timed releases to placate international protesters – but nothing changes. Meanwhile, Asean states should also note the rumblings of instability following the purge of Khin Nyunt and his allies.
Some Asean defenders of its hands-off policy toward Myanmar’s oppression of opposition voices claim that Washington is hypocritical. They point to the lack of American criticism of the oppression in Singapore of opposition leaders and the absence of a free media there. They contrast Lee Hsien Loong’s warm reception by President George W. Bush, spreader of global democracy, with the treatment of critics of the Singapore system.
Singapore may be no Uzbekistan; and the U.S. military presence in the region is favored by all Asean members, apart from Myanmar, though they may not say so publicly. But there are concerns among some neighbors about the extent of Singapore’s intelligence links to the United States, and Singapore’s use of this relationship for political purposes in the region. Singapore’s utility to American strategic and commercial interests have led to Washington keeping rather quiet about the city state’s lack of political freedom.
Western media and academics, say critics, undermine their principles by preferring not to risk losing Singapore’s market by “interfering” in its domestic politics. More than any other Asean country except Thailand, Singapore has also been in the forefront of commercial cooperation with the Burmese generals who export Myanmar’s resources and invest in the safety of Singapore property and bank accounts.
The issue of double standards cannot, however, hide Asean’s dilemma over Myanmar and the fact that Asean needs the United States at least as much as the United States needs Asean. An Asean chaired by a Myanmar that is not merely oppressive but has no concept of a modern economy is almost meaningless – it becomes a group defined by geography and nothing else.
The meeting of foreign ministers in Laos, meanwhile, is to focus on security issues, including North Korea and terrorism. What the Asean members have to contribute on North Korea is not quite clear. The six parties directly concerned with North Korea will all be represented in Vientiane, except Pyongyang. They have enough work to do without bothering with Asean.
As for the “war on terror,” in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, it can be abused for political purposes. Talk of international cooperation can hide the fact that most problems are domestic and not cross-border. There is scope for more bilateral cooperation, for example between Malaysia and Thailand, but even that can raise questions. Much trumpeted arrests of supposed Thai Muslim plotters based on evidence from Singapore proved so weak that the Thai government decided last week not to appeal after the case was thrown out by the court.
If Asean is not prepared to sideline Myanmar and focus on making regional economic cooperation work its relevance looks set to diminish. The United States needs to maintain its interest in Southeast Asia, but that should not mean pandering to Asean’s illusions about the group’s importance.