By WILLIAM BOOT
OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy News
Many countries have shown more interest in trading with Asean than in taking Burma’s generals to task for trampling on citizens’ basic rights
BANGKOK — THE more pressing needs of economic growth in East Asia appear to be overriding the issue of pressuring the Burmese military junta to reform.
Economic giants China and India are on the verge of finalizing free trade agreements (FTAs) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), to which Burma belongs, while both Australia and New Zealand have just formed closer trade pacts with the bloc.
None of these countries’ governments has raised a murmur of disquiet with Asean about deals which could benefit a regime widely reviled and sanctioned by many Western countries.
The pacts—just signed or expected to be finalized by the end of this year—will give the Burmese regime and the supportive domestic monopoly businesses which operate under its banner unfettered access to a combined market of around 2.8 billion people.
“With this prospect in sight there is little wonder that the Burmese ruling generals pay little heed to the financial and trade sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union,” said a trade official at a European embassy in Bangkok, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The US and the EU both recently tightened sanctions in a bid to persuade the generals to promote democratic reforms in the wake of last year’s street protests, which were violently suppressed by security forces.
Asean pursues a policy of noninterference in the political affairs of member states, even though the 10-country organization has declared ambitions to emulate the EU by 2015—copying Europe’s single market, unfettered labor movement and human rights code.
Asean’s code is currently being formulated, but the Burmese regime has already signaled it will not tolerate any outside interference on issues of rights and pro-democracy politics.
Ironically, it is the EU which is baulking at Asean hopes to reach an FTA between the two blocs.
Primary conditions for countries joining the EU include democratic institutions, an independent judiciary and adherence to human rights arbitrated by the European Court of Justice.
While Asean concluded deals with Australia and New Zealand and trade negotiations progressed with India, the group’s secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, admitted that similar negotiations with the EU had become “most challenging.”
“Because of the diversity on both sides, the two sides are working very hard trying to find some common ground to move forward,” he said.
In keeping with the lack of frankness within Asean, Surin refused to specify what the “diversity” of opinion is.
But the European embassy official who spoke to The Irrawaddy was in no doubt what it meant: “The EU is trying, without much success, to persuade Asean to put pressure on the Burmese military to reform.”
One of Southeast Asia’s leading observers and analysts of Asean, Singapore Institute of International Affairs Chairman Simon Tay, told The Irrawaddy he believed it could be possible for the two sides to agree on an FTA, albeit one without Burma.
“There is a precedent for this in the Asean-Korea FTA, where the rest signed without Thailand. The draft Asean Charter also sets out the Asean minus X formula for economic agreements,” Tay said.
“The question is one of political will on both sides. In the Thai-Korea case, there were substantial differences between the two on economic-trade issues. Here, it is a political-human rights difference.
“Economically, Myanmar [Burma] would be of little concern to the EU. Indeed, there would be opportunities for Myanmar to develop and for the EU to benefit from its resource base. But there are often mixed questions, for example illegal logging, allegations of forced labor to build infrastructure, etc.”
The latest batch of outside trade pacts with Asean has not gone through without some opposition, however.
In New Zealand, the pro-worker Alliance Party sharply criticized the Wellington government for signing a trade agreement which included Burma.
It heightened the likelihood that New Zealanders would end up buying commodities “produced by slave labor in Myanmar,” said the party in a statement.
The Asean-New Zealand FTA was a “model of how free trade and free markets can operate more successfully without democracy, trade unions or basic humanity,” the Alliance Party concluded.
But the New Zealand government has described the Asean deal as “critical to New Zealand’s longer-term strategic engagement”—a sentiment echoed by Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
“Some criticize Asean for being insufficiently activist. I argue that this criticism is misplaced because it fails to appreciate that Asean’s great success has been to avoid conflict among member states and allow economic progress unimpeded,” Rudd said in a recent speech in Singapore.
In any case, he visualizes a much bigger entity than Asean in calling for an Asia-Pacific Community.
Final agreement on FTA deals with China and India are expected to be signed at the Asean leaders’ summit scheduled for Bangkok in December.
China has become Burma’s third-largest individual trading partner, after Thailand and Singapore. Unwilling to miss out on Burma’s natural resources, India has also stepped up commercial deals with the generals.
As if to underline its indifference towards trade sanctions by Europe and North America, the Burmese junta is steadily expanding business ties not only with neighbors large and small, but also with other countries well beyond Southeast Asia where human rights do not figure in decision-making. The latest are Kuwait and North Korea.
Although the EU’s trade with Burma has shrunk because of sanctions, the European Community is an important market for Asean as a whole.
“If the overall deal is not so sweet, and the EU gets on a moral high horse, I can see that Asean unity will be evoked,” said Tay. “Seeing who blinks will become a game, which, while intriguing, would do little to deal with the real issues.”