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The Last Nail in the Coffin of Constructive Engagement

Kanbawza Win

In our world where business always overrules the conscience, it seems that the Constructive Engagement Policy initiated by the leaders of the core members of ASEAN towards Burma has finally meet its doom.
This is not because suddenly their twinge of conscience pop up but because they finally discovered that they will lose formidable trading partners of the Western countries if these ASEAN countries continue to ignore the gross human rights violations going on in Burma even as they continue to exploit Burma's   natural and human resources. They now have to admit that there are much more civilized people in the World who would not ignore the suffering of the Burmese people and can easily turn their screws on these ASEAN values.

When the Burmese Junta came to power in 1988 killing thousands of peaceful demonstrators two schools of thoughts emerged as how to deal with this Burmese regime. One is to isolate the regime or at least to exclude from international financing (such as World Bank, IMF and ADB etc) and investment to force to regime to come to terms with the reality and was favoured by the West supported by Burmese pro-democracy and ethnic groups. The other was an open door policy, investing, trading and recognizing the Burmese Junta as a way to foster liberalization to create a more democratic form of government. This was christened as Constructive Engagement Policy by ASEAN.

Now after nearly one and half decade this Constructive Engagement Policy has become an adjective, a hall mark synonymous to the extent of the tragedy of 50 million plus people that did not move the proponents of democracy and free market. Several theories and hypothesis has been put up as reviving the official development assistance, promoting investment and even encouraging the NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance will bring the much-needed change in Burma. They label the pro democracy and the ethnic nationalities to be too impatient and unrealistic wanting an immediate transfer of power-full of Western style democracy and want an instant utopia. They argued that Constructive Engagement presented a rational approach, which takes into account existing realities and bring change in a controlled fashion. Now all these interpretation has come to a big Zero.

The very fact that Burma and other Indo-Chinese states were accepted in ASEAN itself is something like a marriage between a cock and a duck because they belong to the family of fowls (Southeast Asian countries). Hence it neither produced a duckling or a chicken nor is unable to swim (democracy) or peck (communist). Instead comes out an odd species somewhat similar to an ugly duckling (a power maniac) with a hope that one day will miraculously change into a high flying swan.
Burma is exactly like this. Now it seems that it's no longer a question of whether you should talk to your neighbor who killed his sons, rape his daughters and beat up the wife but it's a question of whether that abusive neighbor should be the leader of your village called ASEAN.

Hence the question of self- respect arises for the people of ASEAN became pivotal. A new generation, better educated with much reasoning power that would not listen blindly to their leaders have crop up in Southeast Asia. They saw that the Constructive Engagement Policy as a thin guise to exploit Burma's natural and human resources for short-term gain and is indirectly propping up the regime with
legitimacy. This is having a bad effect on their region and something must be done. Besides, witnessing the mammoth sufferings of the Burmese, the religious adherent began to question this illogical policy. The majority of the people in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia profess Buddhism; in Singapore the main religion is Confucian, while Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia profess Islam and Philippines is
Christian. Yet, not a speck of all these religious teachings were in Constructive Engagement Policy, in other words it paints the religious and moral bankruptcy of the region as a whole and ASEAN in particular.

Incidentally in the economic scene unlike China's manufacturing miracle or India's services magic, there doesn't seem to be a single compelling theme in ASEAN economy, especially after the 1997 financial crisis. There are multiple strategies, initiatives, and success and failure stories. This tends to create a new scenario in the ASEAN business leaders who all the time are conducted to follow the government lead and adapted their strategy to go where the wind is blowing. Now suddenly governments in the core ASEAN countries began to play a different tune. The refrain is one of the supporting roles, not the virtuoso lead as the previous past. The government are encouraging private enterprises to think for themselves and shape their own destiny. They are to be innovative and create their own future. This compels a major shift in the mindset of the boardrooms and managers, similar to that the ship captain was left without the compass. They will have to fend themselves off. So they began to look at the world especially to the West where much emphasis is given on the prevalence of democracy and human rights. As far as Burma is concerned they could not rest their laurels on a short-term gain and be tarnished as unscrupulous exploiter forever. In other words the Constructive Engagement Policy is too pungent to have a good business dealings.

Hence, the people began to question their parliamentary representative. These Members of Parliament began to speak out in their respective parliaments. Many a country unthinkable about a decade ago began to set up a parliamentary committee for the prevalence of democracy and human rights in Burma. The thinking of dominant one party dictatorship under the smokescreen of democracy of the region began to change. A classic example is Singapore, where hitherto PAP dominated by the "Father Son and the Holy Goh" was gone, when the Father and Holy Goh were in the annals of history and the son with its retinue of young Turks began to resent the accusation that Singapore's national character can be measure in dollars and cents, have now taken the initiative. At the last budget debate the S'pore government officials have a hard time answering to the quest of the parliamentarians questioning the Constructive Engagement Policy. It is the first time in the entire history of Singapore that has come out in the open, which was usually a closed-door affair as far as Burma and the hush hush narco dollars are concerned.
Parliamentary Committee on Burma has been formed in the core ASEAN countries of Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia and S'pore have joined the bandwagon. PAP representative Charles Chong has said that besides taking away the chairmanship from Burma their main goal is for the flowering of democracy and the release of political prisoners. Come June and one will witness that the parliamentary representatives of the core ASEAN countries of Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia will join the Singapore Members of Parliamentarian to form the ASEAN Inter Parliamentary Committee to pressure their respective governments.

It is also heartening to see that Malaysia Members of Parliament like Theresa Cock and Mr Lim talking very openly when the UMN0 is still a dominating power minus its helmsmen Dr Mahirthir Mohammad. Several representatives like Kraingsak Choonhaven of Thailand and several from Indonesia, Philippines have spoken out which we hope to bear fruit on ASEAN. Of course this is not because they are morally transformed but because they saw the writings on the wall that they will lose much with their Western Countries and international trading partners if they insist on this illogical policy. At last the Constructive Engagement Policy has pinch their pockets and they will have to move.
They have witness that the nature of the Burmese Junta who will take one step forward to democracy by releasing the Nobel Laureate and taking two steps backwards by arresting her again. Indeed Than Shwe and its cohorts tried to assassinate her once and for all at Depayin, but the Military Intelligence chief Khin Nyunt knew it in advance and rescued her and for this he is now languishing in jail. How can a power maniac be the Chairman of this prestigious ASEAN?

One will have to welcome this positive move even though it had taken 15 years for ASEAN to understand the nature of the Burmese Junta while a Burmese democrat can understand it in 15 minutes. If the ASEAN had heeded to a soft whispering voice of a Burmese lady now in custody such costly and heartbreaking experience should have been avoided.


The views express here are solely the opinion of the author. (Kaowao's Editor)


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