The annual conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, held this week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was overshadowed by events in Burma—one of the 10 member nations—as the United States and the European Union urged the organization to break with its longstanding principle of non-interference and pressure Rangoon to release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In the end, the association failed to support economic or political sanctions against Burma's ruling military regime. (For more on Nobel winner Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, which won Burma's 1990 election—though the ruling junta refused to hand over power—see this BBC profile.)
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the ASEAN leaders originally drafted a statement that made no reference to the recent arrest of Suu Kyi, who was taken into custody, along with members of the NLD, after their convoy was attacked in Northern Burma. According to reports by Burmese exiles, as many as 70 NLD supporters were killed in the incident. Instead, the final communiqué "welcomed" assurances from the Burmese foreign minister that "measures taken following the incident" were temporary and looked forward to the early lifting of "restrictions" placed on Suu Kyi and her party. The Herald observed, "The stance is unlikely to satisfy the US and other Western governments, which have called for regional governments to curtail their close economic and political ties with the regime."
Earlier, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post had anticipated "a brave new era of co-operation" within ASEAN. The paper portrayed the communiqué's mild criticism as a "first step towards what should evolve into a new era of regional problem-solving." Until it issued its gentle rebuke to the Burmese government, "the organisation's members had scarcely acknowledged one another's difficulties in the apparent interests of cohesion." The reluctance to discuss internal problems prevented beneficial collaboration, and "tough issues that could have been resolved through regional co-operation were allowed to cause economic hardship and high casualty rates." The paper also noted that the organization was widely criticized outside the region when it admitted Burma in 1997, but ASEAN claimed the nation's transition to democracy would be accelerated by "constructive engagement." The SCMP concluded, "That approach has been proven to have failed. Rather than view membership of Asean as a privilege that must be accompanied by political and economic reform, the regime has taken advantage of its situation."
The Financial Times said ASEAN's credibility had "been badly eroded by its inability to influence Burma's generals." The FT also reported a second slap to ASEAN's prestige when North Korea's foreign minister declared himself too busy to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum, which would have provided a chance to be present at the same meeting as Colin Powell and other senior U.S. officials. The Pyongyang regime "may have feared being overwhelmed by international criticism of its nuclear arms programme. But the move has done Asean's standing no good in the eyes of the west," the FT concluded.
Singapore's Straits Times reported that the Burmese foreign minister "set the scene abuzz" with his claims that the Rangoon regime had taken Suu Kyi into custody to protect her from assassins. ASEAN leaders' failure to challenge the minister's incredible story typified ASEAN's dilemma, the paper said. "Its international image and credibility could be undermined, unless it can defend the indefensible. A tongue-tied Asean, whose hands are already bound by the long-cherished principle of non-interference in each other's domestic affairs, won't burnish its image either."