The Multilateralist

ASEAN, rogues, and dissidents

Joshua Kurlantzick argues that ASEAN—the regional club that includes Burma as a member—should get no credit for the release of the country’s most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, and that her saga will continue to haunt the organization: Of all the actors implicated in the release this past weekend of Aung San Suu Kyi, ...

Joshua Kurlantzick argues that ASEAN—the regional club that includes Burma as a member—should get no credit for the release of the country’s most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, and that her saga will continue to haunt the organization:

Of all the actors implicated in the release this past weekend of Aung San Suu Kyi, surely the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was among those who reaped the least benefit. Since admitting Myanmar in the late 1990s, ASEAN has realized that the decision was an enormous mistake, since the junta’s behavior wound up dominating ASEAN meetings, discussions with the United States and other outside powers, and tarnishing the group’s reputation. By getting the Obama administration to meet with ASEAN leaders even though Myanmar sat at the table, ASEAN thought it had finally extracted itself from being beholden to the junta in Naypyidaw [snip]

But no. With Suu Kyi’s release, which puts pressure on the junta to allow her to travel and re-form her political organization and puts the international spotlight on Myanmar again, ASEAN will again be dominated by the Myanmar issue, which will paralyze meetings of the organization and, potentially (if the junta commits another atrocity against Suu Kyi and her party), will create a new divide between ASEAN and Western partners like the United States and the European Union.

There’s no doubt that ASEAN has been accommodating to its thuggish member and that it has deployed all kinds of mealy-mouthed formulations to avoid direct criticism. As Kurlantzick points out, the group issued a statement welcoming this month’s fraudulent elections as a "signficant step."

But did ASEAN really have no impact on the decision to release Suu Kyi? Jon Pevehouse, a political scientist who’s  looked at how membership in regional organizations affects countries’ internal politics has found evidence that membership can bolster liberalization, particularly when the regional organization is populated largely by democratic countries (he classifies ASEAN as leaning only slightly in the democratic direction, below most European groupings but significantly more democratic than clubs such as OPEC or the Organization of the Islamic Conference). Pevehouse has argued that membership in these clubs can sometimes indirectly lead to liberalization, even absent formal pressure, because of  a kind of socializing effect: thuggish leaders may mitigate their most anti-democratic practices in order to get along with the rest of the club. 

I asked Pevehouse whether he thinks ASEAN might be having a subtle effect on Burma. "My read is that ASEAN did exert some pressure on Burma to do something in the aftermath of the elections," he says, "ASEAN is trying to serve as a bridge institution between the global community and Burma itself." Pevehouse believes that because Burma’s behavior in some ways reflects on the regional club, its members have a clear incentive to temper its more outrageous behavior and try to extract at least modest concesssions. 

Kurlantzick is having none of it.  "There’s no evidence of that at all," he wrote to me. "The ASEAN countries don’t exert any  real influence on Burma to change. The regime is no more liberal than it was before it joined ASEAN, and ASEAN has no enforcement mechanism anyway." For Kurlantzick, the implication is clear: a regional organization—and certainly one with democratic leanings—does itself no good by including in its ranks a despotic government. Pevehouse is less certain: 

Is it more effective to ‘gatekeep’ like the EU does and keep the questionable countries out or is it more effective to let the questionable countries in and hope you can change them from the inside? We’ve thought about that, but we don’t have a good answer to it.

 Twitter: @multilateralist
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