Hurdles to Singapore Summit, Opinion & Editorial, Jakarta Post, 25 Oct 2007

Myanmar’s junta chief Gen. Than Shwe may feel like a superstar, attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 40th anniversary special summit in Singapore on Nov. 20.

Hundreds of cameramen, photographers and reporters will do their best to take pictures and chase comments from the usually tight-lipped army general.

Than Shwe may also feel proud when leaders of the 10-member regional group are photographed hand-in-hand after they sign, or witness the signing of, the ASEAN Charter.

The ASEAN Charter is expected to pave the way for ASEAN to reach its goal of transforming the regional organization into the ASEAN Community before 2020. By signing the Charter, the member states are expected to adhere more strictly to universal values like democracy and human rights.

With at least one of the members – in this case Myanmar – having no interest in upholding those values, the Charter will be meaningless.

It is up to the general whether he will attend the summit personally or send someone else. ASEAN leaders have faced international pressure to punish the Myanmar junta for its violent crackdown on recent street protests, but they will not likely bar Than Shwe from attending the historic summit.

His left and right hands will be warmly held by his colleagues, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will probably be the one to raise the hand of Myanmar’s self-appointed leader in a demonstration of regional unity.

It will be a demonstration that no one in this world can break the unity of the ASEAN or intervene in ASEAN’s internal affairs, including Myanmar’s.

But the ASEAN leaders would not be the only ones acting as protectors of the junta chief, because the ASEAN summit will also be attended by his close allies India and China. Japan and South Korea will also be there.

ASEAN leaders – including Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as host – will treat the Myanmarese general as though they never realized Than Shwe was responsible for gross human rights abuses in his country.

Thousands of monks and starving protesters are reportedly missing or dead for protesting price increases and the brutality of the army against citizens.

As an army general himself, President Yudhoyono will not be likely to break the tradition of strong solidarity among generals.

Yudhoyono, the leader of ASEAN’s largest member, still believes a persuasive approach is the only method to convince generals in Myanmar to stop killing and look after their starving citizens.

With the commemorative ASEAN summit only a month away, there is little hope that ASEAN leaders – especially those elected democratically – will have the guts to say “enough is enough” to Myanmar’s junta.

So what will the ASEAN leaders’ message to the people of Myanmar be when they gather in Singapore next month? The foreign ministers must work hard to prepare defensive statements on Myanmar. They must prepare an excuse for the people in this region, why they let Than Shwe do whatever he likes in maintaining the military’s absolute rule over his impoverished nation.

The Myanmar leader is also a genius at manipulating the United Nations. While his soldiers continue to hunt monks and pro-democracy activists, he allows a visit from UN officials to asses the country. A UN official on human rights affairs is slated to visit the country soon. It is excellent propaganda in the lead up to the Singapore summit.

We must remember that ASEAN leaders are morally responsible for what has and will continue to happen in Myanmar. They are morally responsible for human rights abuses in that country, when they choose to ignore the screams of millions of Myanmar people who are desperately seeking help from their neighbors.