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ASEAN, Myanmar work out a compromise

P. S. Suryanarayana

"The ASEAN way", which the Myanmar junta is seen to have exploited, was, in essence, the group's road-map of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member-states

SINGAPORE: The democracy lobby within the Association of South East Asian Nations' Regional Forum (ARF) has heaved a sigh relief that Myanmar's military Government will not chair either the ASEAN or its meetings with dialogue partners in 2006.

The ARF held its latest annual session in Vientiane, Laos, on Friday. On the eve of that meeting, Myanmar announced its decision to give up the right to preside over the ASEAN next year.

However, "the ASEAN way" provided the Yangon regime with an exit strategy, which had the effect of dodging, if not outwitting, the democracy lobby, especially the Western dialogue partners, according to some regional diplomats and analysts.

"The ASEAN way", which the Myanmar junta is seen to have exploited, was, in essence, the group's road-map of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member-states. Given this principle, the ASEAN left it to Myanmar to decide whether or not to press its case for chairing the group and its larger meetings with dialogue partners.

In the event, while the others in the 10-member ASEAN did not wish to strip Myanmar of its turn for chairmanship, they did not suggest that the Yangon regime take any particular course of action to meet the objections from a section of the ARF.

The Western lobby had expected Yangon to come under pressure from the other ASEAN members over such issues as the need to set free Aung San Suu Kyi, celebrated democracy campaigner, and move towards democratisation in Myanmar.

In the end, the ASEAN expressed its collective "appreciation" for Myanmar's "commitment to the well-being" of the entire group.

This, according to diplomatic observers, showed that the Yangon regime was urged, in some manner, by its ASEAN colleagues to "advance the interests" of all the 10 members by avoiding a showdown with their pro-democracy dialogue partners.

The Yangon regime chose the soft option of relinquishing its chairmanship claim.

The argument, however, is that Myanmar does not, as a result, lose any of its existing benefits as an ASEAN member. A new point of debate is whether the West can hope to use as its proxies those countries which actively engage the Yangon regime.

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