ASEAN Way, Not Sanctions, Swayed Myanmar

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 5/31/2012 08:33:00 AM

My memory was jogged about making this post by a family friend who recently came back from Myanmar on an expedition to buy Burmese rubies. "Gotta go now that tourists are welcome again but before jewelry prices go up as more international buyers come" she offered. There's nothing wrong with commerce and tourism, I say, and Myanmar could certainly use the foreign exchange.

My memory was further jogged by a Yahoo! feature from John Tures of LaGrange College offering the admittedly minority opinion that Myanmar's recent return to a semblance of normality (by international standards)--ridding itself of the dual currency system borne of the grey market among other things--is the result  of successful sanctions.  I'd never heard of LaGrange College before reading this feature, but I can assure you that it has little to do with mathematical concepts or whorehouses in Texas immortalized by world-famous bearded musicians sporting fuzzy guitars. Rather it's quite the opposite--LaGrange College is a Baptist [!] higher learning institution.

Anyway, my disagreemeent with Tures concerns both the efficacy of the sanctions and his glaring omission of Southeast Asian nations' disavowal of using these sanctions to promote change in Myanmar. ASEAN always thought sanctions were, in plain English, a dumb idea unlike say Aung San Suu Kyi. Chronologically speaking, Myanmar's membership of ASEAN (it joined in 1997) is more recent and came well after the United States and Europe imposed all sorts of sanctions on the nation. There is better reason to believe that ASEAN's influence rather than sanctions which long preceded Burmese membership in ASEAN set it on a more moderate path.
Fortunately, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak has the chronologically and what I would obviously argue is the factually correct interpretation of what has transpired in "How the ASEAN Way Won Burma Over":
For many decades, Myanmar was on the receiving end of very public diplomatic scoldings, often backed up by sanctions. Implicit in this stance was the idea that democratic nations such as Malaysia should shun their less-free neighbors, and that the only way to bring about improvements was to economically cripple those who had not yet embraced the ballot box.

But Asean members took a more nuanced view, believing that constructive engagement and encouragement were just as effective, if not more, than sanctions and isolation in creating positive change. As such, Asean admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997 and extended an open hand of friendship.

Those of us in Asean have long thought of it less as an association and more as a family. Asians traditionally place a great deal of importance on the family, celebrating each other's successes and supporting each other when times are hard. Unlike some cultures, where difficult members can be marginalized, ignored or left to be dealt with by others, Asians are proud to take care of their own. Writ large at the level of international diplomacy, this approach ensures that countries do not lose face and leaves open the door to leaders who are committed to reform.
While ASEAN did not pile on more pressure in addition to what the US and EU were pressing, this does not mean ASEAN treated Myanmar with kid gloves. Despite not condemning it in public, you can rest assured that Myanmar received censure from its Southeast Asian peers--but in private especially during regional gatherings. Returning to the Asian notion of "saving face," publicly embarrassing Myanmar was something frowned upon as not being constructive. Yet it was not entirely acceptable either that Myanmar shame the family name through unsavoury deeds.

As some bozo noted on the main LSE IDEAS blog, remember that Myanmar received quiet censure by being passed over for its scheduled turn as the ASEAN chair in 2006. It is partly Myanmar's conviction that it assume its turn in 2014 that prompted it to change its ways. Understandably, ASEAN too has an image to maintain to the outside world. While the ASEAN Way is certainly not to be averse to authoritarian regimes, it still has a reputation to consider with regard to international norms and standards. Remembering that today's erstwhile reformer Thein Sein was chosen in elections judged neither free nor fair by international observers should make you as wary about electoral fundamentalism as some other ASEAN heads of state. Just as those chosen in free elections can become dictators, it does not necessarily hold that those selected through more--how should I put this--managed processes cannot reform.

So there. ASEAN's positive involvement in Myanmar again belies its reputation as a talk shop or a league of authoritarians. In our part of the world, gentle persuasion  exemplified by the ASEAN Way works.