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.
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.