Southeast Asia's critical test

April 17, 2005

THE MILITARY JUNTA strangling Myanmar has survived with a lot of help from its Southeast Asian neighbors. After all, Myanmar's generals offer natural resources, slave labor and a profitable drug trade. And anyway, a key principle of the region's top political organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has long been noninterference in its members' internal affairs.

But Myanmar is to take over leadership of ASEAN next year. And given the regime's brutality, that honor finally is proving embarrassing enough that officials from some of the group's 10 members - Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines - have been calling for preventing Myanmar from assuming this chairmanship.

That would be a long-overdue and justified rejection by regional leaders and a welcome addition to U.S. and European Union sanctions on Myanmar, which so far have not led to change there. But disappointingly, at a retreat last week in the Philippines, ASEAN foreign ministers deferred action until at least their next meeting in July.

For ASEAN, this is a critical test. The country once known as Burma was admitted to the group in 1997 with the hope that membership would prod the generals toward reforms. But today, many Burmese remain enslaved, a democratic party legally elected in 1990 is repressed, and its leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest.

In March, a U.S. State Department report found prospects for political reform there continuing to decline "as a result of the Burmese junta's blatant disregard for human rights." Last week, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights called for an end to the regime's "systematic violations of human rights."

Myanmar's generals still have plenty of support, particularly from China, India and Thailand, which has been particularly complicit in sustaining the regime and silent on its ASEAN chairmanship.

The withdrawal of ASEAN support for Myanmar should be encouraged by the United States by every means possible. ASEAN nations must know that if they give in to more empty promises of political reforms from Myanmar and allow themselves to be led by this junta, it's hard to imagine top U.S. officials continuing to participate in its gatherings. ASEAN also must know that it would be setting for itself a new standard of international disgrace.

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