ASEAN Unable to Solve its Myanmar Dilemma

ASEAN Unable to Solve its Myanmar Dilemma

The crisis in Myanmar has bedeviled the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a time when its members had hoped to focus on celebrating the organization's 40th anniversary. Although most other ASEAN governments oppose the military government's repression of Myanmar's peaceful opposition, they have proven unable to break fully with their traditional policy of non-interference in member governments' internal affairs.

The decision to invite Myanmar into ASEAN in March 1997 resulted from a fleeting consensus among members that granting Myanmar membership was preferable to its continued exclusion. Even those ASEAN states most censorious of the Myanmar government, led since 1992 by General Than Shwe, hoped its entry would encourage a moderation of its policies if not a change in the regime itself. They also sought to balance China's growing influence in Myanmar by offering it membership in ASEAN.

Subsequent developments have shattered these hopes. In 1988, Myanmar's military junta brutally suppressed a student-led democracy movement, killing some 3,000 people. Although the military leaders yielded to international demands to hold a general election in 1990, they refused to honor the results when the opposition National League for Democracy Party won overwhelmingly, garnering 80 percent of the popular vote. Since then, the junta has kept the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest and failed to implement its proclaimed "roadmap" toward restoring democracy. The regime's opponents also accuse the junta of committing other human rights violations, such as employing forced labor and child soldiers as well as oppressing ethnic minorities.

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