Burma wins acceptance ASEAN recognition: Human rights deprivation, drug traffic, don't matter.

July 25, 1996

MYANMAR, as Burma's rulers call the country, passed no human rights test to win observer status from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), or membership in its ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on security. The ASEAN members are vigorous economies but not model democracies themselves. Singapore led the charge for legitimizing the reclusive military dictatorship, partly because Singapore investment is developing the country. A second motive is to wean Burma from mighty China.

To its credit, the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) has opened Burma's economy to investment and trade. It allowed the opposition leader, Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi, out of house arrest a year ago. But it continues to harass her and her supporters, one of whom died in custody in suspicious circumstances. And it appears to protect the heroin BTC export trade of the remote "Golden Triangle." Burma's welcome by its neighbors comes while the U.S. Senate is considering economic sanctions against it.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned of sanctions if the SLORC record does not improve. But ASEAN members, all enjoying the U.S. security umbrella, resist any pressure on an Asian nation's domestic affairs. The Canadian foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, wisely proposed establishing a contact group of ARF nations to encourage Burma's human rights. Since there will be engagement, he suggested, make it constructive.

Burma used the meeting to insist that the SLORC does not plan to rule forever but intends a restoration of legitimate government at an unnamed time in the future. That is hardly reassuring. One can debate the theoretical merits of isolation versus engagement with a rogue regime. In this case, isolation is ending. So democratic nations should use the contact that will occur to maintain the pressure for democracy. Maybe some of it will rub off on ASEAN members that, in this respect, have their own room for improvement.

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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