Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Burma

   When ASEAN was established in 1967, the original founding member-states-Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines-had pro-Western governments and close security ties with the United States and Britain, including American and British military bases on their soil. Because of Burma's commitment to nonalignment and Ne Win's deep suspicion of foreign countries, the Burma Socialist Programme Party regime kept aloof from the regional association. After socialist isolationism was abandoned in 1988, however, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) expressed interest in joining, though ASEAN's decision to admit it was highly controversial. Because of the SLORC's human rights abuses and its refusal to recognize the results of the General Election of May 27, 1990, the governments of the United States and some European countries opposed Burma's ASEAN membership, even though they themselves were not members. Within ASEAN, Malaysia under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad was the SLORC's strongest backer, while the relatively liberal governments of Thailand and the Philippines expressed doubts about the regime's readiness to play a constructive role in the association. In the end, SLORC's supporters won the day and the country, along with Laos, officially became a member on July 23, 1997, at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
   For ASEAN, the perceived advantages of Burma's membership were largely economic (potential markets and the country's rich natural resources), but also included security factors (the need to counterbalance China's growing influence inside the country) and the desire of ASEAN member states to assert their independence in the face of not-so-subtle pressure from Washington. Also, some ASEAN leaders hoped that Burma's regional integration would promote, through "constructive engagement," the country's economic and political liberalization. One of ASEAN's fundamental principles is noninterference in the internal affairs of member states, but Burma's continuing political and human rights problems, including the "Black Friday" Incident of May 30, 2003, have made the country, in the words of one journalist, ASEAN's "problem child." Immediately following the incident, ASEAN leaders called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from detention, and Prime Minister Mahathir, quite uncharacteristically, even suggested that Burma might have to be expelled from the group. In the months that followed, ASEAN did nothing to follow through on its criticism of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), although there was a movement within the group, supported by Western countries, to deny the SPDC the regional chairmanship of ASEAN when its turn comes around in 2006. In fact, the SPDC relinquished the chairmanship in favor of the Philippines in July 2005.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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