Karen Insurgency in Burma Now a Problem for ASEAN

May 11, 2006 by  


By Farish A. Noor, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

Since early this year the level of violence in the Southeastern regions of Burma has been escalating. The Burmese army remains caught in a bloody counter-insurgency conflict with the KNU (Karen National Union), the armed wing of the Karen autonomy movement that purports to represent the minority Karen community whose homeland lies in Burma and borders neighbouring Thailand. Already thousands of Karens have been forced to flee into Thailand, straining Thai-Burmese relations that have hardly ever been rosy in the first place. Burma’s numerous insurgencies have thus become the problem of Thailand, and by extension ASEAN as well.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains as one of the more successful models of inter-national co-operation and regional bloc-building in the world today. Compared to the European Union (EU) ASEAN cannot be said to be a union of any sort: vast disparaties of wealth and power remain within the assembly of ten nation-states and despite talk to the contrary ASEAN remains at odds with itself as some of the bigger ASEAN powers – notably Indonesia- continue to play the role of ‘big brother’ watching over the other junior members.

Notwithstanding ASEAN’s failure to develop anything resembling a common economic and trading bloc, it remains successful in the sense that it has managed to maintain relatively good relations among its members and ensured that at the height of the Cold War it stayed neutral, albeit neutral on the side of the West. ASEAN’s greatest moment came with the fall of Vietnam and the rest of Indochina following the defeat of the Americans in 1975. The world turned the other way, fearing the world and predicted the invariable collapse of Southeast Asia and it being devoured by the Soviet bloc.

Despite the negative prognosis, ASEAN’s original founding states: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines cobbled together a loose coalition based purely on pragmatism and the need to survive. By supporting each other the member states not only managed to weather the storms of the Cold War era but also engineered their own economic miracle in the 1980s with the help of foreign (notably Japanese) direct foreign investment. In the post Cold War era ASEANs greatest success has come in the form of its gradual expansion to include countries like Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. More so that all the bombs and troops of the USA, it was ASEAN that finally brokered the peace in Indochina and helped bring about the global acceptance and rehabilitation of Vietnam.

There remains, however, one major stumbling block: Burma. Burma closed its doors to the world following the army coup led by General Ne Win in 1963.

Since then the country has become a hermits kingdom that was once guided by the left-leaning military regimes ideology, dubbed the ‘Burmese way to Socialism’. The net result was more than three decades of isolationism, rampant abuse of human rights by the army, the marginalisation of ethnic minority groups, a total news blackout and the stagnation of the economy.

Following the nationalisation of the Burmese private sector in the 1960s that led to the so-called ‘twelve economic sectors’, there has emerged a thirteenth: corruption, which remains unchecked till today.

ASEAN is at pains to show the world that it can still deal with the Burmese problem on its own terms, but thus far has had little to show. Last month Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar cut short his visit to the country after it became evident that the military junta has done little to improve its record of governance and that all the talk of Burmese human rights commissions etc was mere whitewash. Following the denial of his request to visit representatives of the country’s opposition such as Aung San Su Kyi, Minister Albar cut his trip short and returned to Malaysia, only to report that nothing has changed.

Today’s news that the military campaign against the Karen minority in the region bordering Thailand is therefore serious for those who have been working hard to limit the excesses of the Burmese junta and to talk sense to the generals in charge. With increasing pressure being brought to bear by international bodies and NGOs such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, the Western powers seem to be growing less and less patient with ASEAN’s failure to deliver results. Ironically it is ASEAN’s slow and cautious approach towards integration, that helped bring Vietnam back into the fold, that may undo the situation for good in the case of Burma. While Burma can count on its relative strategic insignificance to ensure that it will not become a military target for the USA, it has indeed become a point of embarrassment for the rest of ASEAN and also the stick to beat ASEAN with.

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