ASEAN might right be irked at growing international concern at the prospect of the admission of the military regime in Rangoon. In making what will be a momentous decision, it needs to focus on the real issue - and that is the aspirations of a population that conflict with those of the military rulers.
IN reacting to the United States sanctions against Burma, Asean leaders have shown no one likes to be told what to do, particularly in their own neck of the woods. The reaction is perfectly natural but it is important not to lose sight of the central issue in the debate about the admission of Burma. The issue is interference.
Some Asean leaders have jumped at the chance to tell Washington to mind its own business and stop interfering in regional affairs. But Asean must accept that despite its protestations to the contrary, it is interfering in the affairs of Burma itself. In pandering to the State Law and Order Restoration Council, Asean is defying the wishes of the more than 95 percent of Burmese who voted the dictators out of office in the 1990 general election.
But given strong statements of support form some Asean leaders, the admission of Slorc along with Cambodia and Laos might seem a forgone conclusion. What will Asean, or more particularly Thailand, gain if the three are admitted this year? For some members, the answer is a lot, and it is no coincidence that those who express fervent support for Slorc enjoy cosy, high level deals with it.
Thailand is the only Asean country that has anything perhaps a lot to lose. It shares borders with all three countries. It is the only country to neighbour Burma and the demarcation of borders has never been settled, There have been disputes in the past with both Laos and Cambodia -Ban Rom Klao and Preab Vihear spring to mind. In terms of Cambodia, which is showing disturbing signs of Vietnam cannot be ruled out.
But it is the border with Burma that continues to see incessant violations by Slorc forces and their proxies. At present, Thailand is free to deal with neighbours according to its own interests and policies. We run the risk of tying our own hands if the three are admitted. Slorc has been particularly recalcitrant and capricious on border issues. At present, Slorc has few friends in the international community but it could seek to exploit the good offices of Asean to solicit support among certain members for its claims to border territory. It could call for fact finding missions or mediation, complicating and delaying a resolution of the disputes. Both Burma and Cambodia splits into two camps? Which side will Asean take? Which side will Thailand support? Burma has no constitution and no rule of law and a powerful fact ion in the army is trenchantly opposed to Asean membership. what if this group gains the upper hand and cynically abuses membership before pulling out? Should Asean take the risk?
If Asean parrots Slorc's assertion that it must remain at the helm because of continued instability, we should recognise this for the falsehood that it is. Burma will never achieve stability under Slorc, which needs the absence of law and order to justify its continued misrule. As the only country whose national security is at risk, Thailand must realise the serious challenges that lie ahead.
It is essential to look beyond narrow interests to what is an important foreign policy issue. Because of the vision and diplomacy of its leaders in the last century , Siam was the only country in the region not to fall under colonial rule. Now, at the end of another century, we must think seriously before entering into disadvantageous and possibly humiliating relationships with unstable neighours. Do the leaders of today have the vision and integrity of those whose skills kept Siam free? There is no harm in waiting until our neighbours are truly ready and then to welcome them with open arms.