April 11, 2012

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak makes the case, ("The Asean Way Won Burma Over," op-ed, Apr. 4), that recent changes in Burma are the product of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' "constructive engagement and encouragement" with the government over the last 15 years, and the offering of "an open hand of friendship" into the Asean "family."

Mr. Razak's theory of change insults just about everyone involved in Burma's recent transitions: new leaders undertaking the changes, the political opposition who labored for years to undermine military rule and nations outside Asia who relentlessly pressured Burma to reform. Mr. Razak also ignores all the major causal factors leading Burma to where it is today: economic stagnation, chronic ethnic conflict, the military's anxiety about rising Chinese economic influence, the potential for an uprising inspired by the Arab Spring and the effects of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

All of Burma's complexity is swept aside to suggest that the cause of transition was merely permitting Burma to join Asean 15 years ago.

Perhaps Mr. Razak forgets that his predecessor, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said in 2003 that admitting Burma to Asean was a mistake, and threatened to expel it for the arrest of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and attacks on her supporters?

The suggestion that Burma's transition will soon stall if the country is not immediately rewarded with removal of all sanctions against it, as Asean members now advise, is not based in reality or on common sense. Even Burma's own leaders are more realistic about the hurdles which need to be overcome—political solutions with ethnic groups, new laws, constitutional changes, an election in 2015—in order to satisfy the criteria for sanctions removal. Mr. Razak should focus on helping Burma achieve these changes, instead of taking credit for reform which has yet to be realized.

John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch  

More reporting on: