Why is Suu Kyi Absent from Asean?

It is rather odd that the democratic icon of Burma, Aung Sann Suu Kyi, is not connected to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) at all. Over the past few months, the only thing she has said about the bloc was her wish to see her country “overtaking Asean.” But she has not elaborated on this remark, which raises questions about how much she knows about Asean and its significance.

Since she has become a politician, winning big in last April’s by-elections, she has spent a great deal of time traveling around the world—particularly the Western half of it. India, Thailand and South Korea were the few stops she has made in Asia. However, she has yet to make a tour of Asean. In this connection, it will be interesting to watch her role next year when Burma is the Asean chair.

Looking back, Suu Kyi did at one time show some interest in engaging with Asean. In mid-July 1995, she agreed to meet up with Rangoon-based Asean diplomats, but that meeting was canceled after the ruling junta complained to the host, Brunei. And so she experienced her first disappointment with Asean.

Subsequently, she wrote a letter to the Asean foreign ministers asking them not to support the totalitarian regime by granting it membership. Unfortunately, her letter was sidelined because it was not submitted through a proper diplomatic channel.

U Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.

Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.

In June 1995, Burma expressed its interest in joining Asean and willingness to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and become an observer as the first step to join the grouping. The international community, liked Suu Kyi, called on Asean not to allow Burma to join due to the political oppression and human rights violations inside the country at the time. But Asean went ahead anyway, admitting Burma in 1997 along with Laos.

This decision strained relations between Asean and its dialogue partners from the West and overall cooperation was hampered. Suu Kyi’s freedom and democracy in Burma became one of the focal points of Asean relations with the West. Various economic sanctions were imposed on Burma throughout its membership, including some affecting privileges from economic agreements Asean has with the West. Burma also shied away from hosting the Asean chair in 2005, citing domestic conditions and unpreparedness.

Over the past two years, however, all of these nightmares have passed. Burma has been active within Asean, trying very hard to catch up with the grouping in all the three pillars of the Asean Community—economic, political/security and social/cultural. The government agencies and officials are learning and acquainting themselves with Asean’s various protocols, procedures and key issues. Asean experts are training them to prepare them for taking over the chair next year. Somehow, the opposition party, the National League of Democracy, still does not know where to begin. As its leader, Suu Kyi should have led the way and set an example. But she has not yet shown any eagerness to connect with Asean.

Her supporters in Asean, including several close friends who used to campaign tirelessly for her freedom, are asking why this is so. They all wish to see Suu Kyi reconciled with Asean and playing a positive role in promoting the grouping’s democratic space and engagement with civil societies. It is a great opportunity for her to bring further reforms to Asean even if it failed to support her democratic struggle in the past. As a lawmaker, she can make a difference as Asean is becoming a single community in the next few years. For instance, she could link to the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, which has fought for her freedom and continues to speak out on human rights violations inside the country.

Her informal region-wide networks would also be useful to drum up support to ensure that Asean becomes a truly people-driven community. It is interesting to note that during her incarceration, whenever Asean-based civil society organizations held meetings, they would request Suu Kyi to speak a few words to grace their meetings for insight and inspirations. Numerous video tapes were made in secret and smuggled out to these meetings. Those days are gone; so are these once cherished relations.

Asean needs a charismatic leader with moral authority to engage each other and with the international community. Suu Kyi could easily join the ranks. She is a Nobel Peace laureate who has become the symbol of democracy throughout the world. If she so desires, she can also help to strengthen democratic institutions within Asean. All she needs to do now is to turn her attention to the East.

14 Responses to Why is Suu Kyi Absent from Asean?

  1. At the time of her release there was some criticism, notably by Dr Zarni, over her literally distancing from the Asian diplomats bringing up the rear while she walked abreast with the Western ones. She later tried to redress the issue by always expressing goodwill to China whenever she was questioned in context and a recent visit to India. It’s a shame if she continues to show a lack of initiative over ASEAN. Hopefully she will try and expel the impression that she is rather Eurocentric in her sociopolitical inclinations. About time she did.

  2. George Than Setkyar Heine

    “It is a great opportunity for her to bring further reforms to Asean even if it failed to support her democratic struggle in the past”,
    This sentence itself TESTIFIED the FACT no less idiot.
    And what is ASEAN if I may ask?
    Most of the countries in ASEAN DO NOT FAVOR BURMA TURNING INTO A FREE and DEMOCRATIC STATE as well, any bets?
    They FEAR A FREE, UNITED and PROSPEROUS BURMA WOULD CALL the SHOTS in ASEAN, that’s a fact no less, as evidenced today and specifically under a charismatic and powerful national and chosen leader like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
    These guys are REALLY SMART ASSES to say the least man!
    Now since they CANNOT GET THEIR WAY, they DECIDE to JOIN the FRAY for their OWN GOOD as well trust me.
    Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are the MOST SIGNIFICANT for that matter I say.
    They MISTREATED/ABUSED/VIOLATED the PEOPLE from BURMA who left the country to work in those countries for a PITTANCE only as well as there were NO JOB OPPORTUNITIES in the military run country in those days.
    While the country was in DIRE STRAITS Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia as well had EXPLOITED the SITUATION (politically and economically as well) despite CALLS for RESTRAINT by Daw Suu and international community as well in dealing with the notorious military rulers of the day in Burma, but to NO AVAIL as well of course.
    Now when Daw Suu is FREE and RIDING ON INTERNATIONAL FLAVOR the ASEAN is BEGGING for Daw Suu to TAKE OVER in the rag-tag grouping I see.
    Another interpretation on my part is: ASEAN is INVITING Daw Suu with a prospect/eye on SKINNING BURMA FURTHER I say.
    We have a saying in Burmese: RELATIVES APPEAR WHEN the GOURD (a kind of a very popular fruit/vegetable common in Burma) FLOWERS.

  3. Perhaps when ASEAN has a function other than cute acronym for 10 nations which continuously fail to cooperate, she might look into a role. Besides, she has a nation to build while handcuffed.

  4. What is ASEAN and who are the leaders? Any prominent world leaders in that group? Most of them are either ex. communists or ex. military personnel without having sound political knowledge. Period!!!

  5. I can’t understand why some critics would like Daw Suu to involve in many affairs and in many political environments. Except some western countries, in diplomatic protocol, particularly in ASEAN countries, head-of-the-states are reluctant to meet the opposition leaders of the other countries. Do ASEAN countries invite Daw Suu to visit to their countries and does ASEAN ask Daw Suu to involve in their engagements?
    Daw Suu knows what she has to do. Stop critizing Daw Suu.

  6. I agree. We expect too much from a woman who has put her personal and family life aside. If I were a women, I would not be able to do the things she did. A notable one is the fact that she lived away from her husband and children. It must have been so hard for a woman. Honestly, I cannot live away from my wife and children – call me selfish or narbu – I just cann’t be away from my family.

  7. As was mentioned, many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s contacts are informal. Is there any way she would officially be allowed to participate in ASEAN. It seems more like the opportunity has to present itself, not that she has to look for it.

    Anyway, even her informal contacts seem to be making major impacts in different regions of the world. She can’t do everything that people expect–at least not yet. She probably WILL play an important role in ASEAN when the time comes.

  8. I agree with Yebaw. ASEAN didn’t invite nor communicate with Daw Su officially according to their policy of not to interfering the affair of member’s countries. Besides, ASEAN countries are still developing countries and they need help and investments like we Burma do from developed countries . Thus, they will never like to see Burma on the right path of democratization and become their competitor for investments because Burma has history of leading economy country in the region and still has huge potential to get back her original status with right government and policy.

    I would like to suggest journalists to write or comment a subject that they know in and out. Do not write for personal feeling, shallow assumption nor self benefit.

  9. The above comment is my view based on news and articles that I have read though.

  10. Hello Post Starter,

    Are you crazy to post this article?

    If I were DASSK, I will be very reluctant to say hello to Asean because some of the members prolonged the life of regime who abused the power and violated the human rights.

    They should be the ones who should say hello and sorry to DASSK. Not the other way round.

  11. @ George Than Setkyar Heine

    Yes, you are absolutely right. They didnt do anything good for Burma,

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