Somebody get this man a Tiger*

Or alternatively, whatever passes for a good ‘national’ alcoholic brew in Burma/Myanmar.

A letter to the online letters section of the state/ruling party-aligned Singapore broadsheet The Straits Times has called out other commentators’ flawed observations (and also the newspaper itself – see letter farther below) on Aung San Su Kyi’s relationship-building with countries in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.

A Michael Seah wrote in to share his views, published on 26 June, that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean or ASEAN) did not deserve any special priority to be visited by ‘The Lady’ as a newly-elected (and freed from house arrest) member of the Burmese parliament.

The link to it is here. This letter with the heading “Asean cannot claim sole credit for Myanmar reforms” is reproduced in full, in case the link expires:

THERE is a difference between seeking investment opportunities for Myanmar and recognising the political right of its people to a fully elected democratic government.

Mr Cheng Seng Poh’s letter (‘Asean’s quiet diplomacy deserves credit’; last Saturday) and Professor Kishore Mahbubani’s commentary (‘The Lady should look to Asia, not Europe’; June 18) seemed to focus on Asean’s achievements and opportunities, but missed the wider point of the need to establish and strengthen Myanmar’s political institutions.

Telling Ms Aung San Suu Kyi to look to Asia and Asean for economic opportunities may be correct. However, the realities on the ground – a military-dominated Parliament and hundreds of political prisoners still in jail – cannot provide an environment that co-exists with economic investments.

Ms Suu Kyi is correct in first seeking support for political reforms to ensure that when the economic reforms bear fruit, the people and not its long-corrupt political junta get to benefit.

Asean cannot itself claim credit for Myanmar’s current reforms under President Thein Sein. It is more likely that the Western spotlight on Ms Suu Kyi helped as well.

Ms Suu Kyi was a highly visible political prisoner of conscience. Myanmar could not get rid of her without incurring international condemnation. That Ms Suu Kyi is today her nation’s international champion is largely due to the impact of Western attention.

Asean may have urged economic and political reforms, but the grouping’s governments also have their own political baggage. Asean nations cannot be the ideal models for the democracy Ms Suu Kyi seeks.

In her speech to British parliamentarians, Ms Suu Kyi called for assistance to strengthen Myanmar’s parliamentary practice and development. In her Nobel lecture, she asked the world not to forget the political prisoners still in jail.

The Straits Times should publish these speeches in full.

Who among Asean’s national leaders visited her or invited her for an official visit? Therefore, let’s not begrudge the fact that she chose to visit Europe before any grand tour of Asean and Asia.

In fact, as her very first stop before visiting Europe, Daw Suu Kyi rightly visited Thailand – and only Thailand – within the regional grouping. Not only has there been a long-standing relationship between the Burmese state (i.e. in the form of the ruling military junta) and the ‘Land of Smiles’, alternative political voices by way of dissidents and exiles, civil society organisations, and pro-democracy Burmese media-in-exile that have a huge presence there. There is also the pressing issue of the treatment of Burmese migrant workers and ethnic minorites too – see this article.

The activities of these groups and their relations with the Thai authorities and wider society have always been ambivalent and fraught with uncertainty. But there is (should?) now be more hope that these groups will gain greater recognition and legitimacy in Thailand and Southeast Asia at large, now that Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her political party are in parliament.

The least that some Singapore-based commentators, as well as those elsewhere in ASEAN countries could do, is acknowledge that ASEAN’s policies of so-called engagement were neither ideal nor particularly effective to begin with – and to stop pretending that Burmese pro-democracy leaders and activists owe our countries’ national governments any imagined debts of gratitude.**

Just as significantly, the Nobel laureate also spoke at the ‘World Economic Forum on East Asia’ meeting in Bangkok, where she advised “healthy skepticism” on investment, political reform, and other related issues on Burma.


* The brand name of Singapore’s ‘premium’ beer.

**With the obvious exception of Thailand, which has hosted and continues to host both Burmese and non-Burmese (including Thai and other Southeast Asian) supporters of Suu Kyi, and others working to advance basic human rights in Burma.


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