Burmese junta comes in from the cold

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"It's hard to find an equivalent," said the European official at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) yesterday, "but try to imagine ... the European Union taking on Libya as a member. Even Radovan Karadzic has had to step down - but here they are, welcoming Burma."

The official documents made little mention of it (the chairman's closing statement acknowledged nothing more than "some divergence of views on the subjects discussed"). But the third ARF meeting in Jakarta yesterday was dominated by discussion of Burma, and the future of its military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The host country, Indonesia, seems to have been hoping to avoid the subject altogether. The Western representatives, led by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, insisted, and the result was an uneasy stand-off which leaves it unclear whether the SLORC has gained or lost from its controversial presence in Jakarta this week.

The seven members of the Association of South-East Asian States (ASEAN) appear to be sharply divided from their Western partners on the question of Burma. ASEAN favours what it calls "constructive engagement" with Rangoon, and this week received Burma as an observer member. Non-Asian members of ARF, including the EU, US and Australia, have criticised this approach, especially since last month, when an honorary consul for several Scandinavian countries died in custody in Rangoon.

Even in public, the facade of harmony among the partners has been strained. "The countries of the West want multi-party democracy," said Ali Alatas, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, and chair of the Forum, "but all the countries of the world want to encourage democratisation ... Don't dictate to us that only a Westminster-style system of government is acceptable, or only an American system is acceptable. That is intellectual arrogance."

Matters came to a head at an informal dinner for ARF participants on Monday night. The Burmese were not present, and Warren Christopher persuaded Mr Alatas to raise the subject at the following day's conference, in the presence of the Burmese Foreign Minister, Ohn Gyaw. "It was definitely a humiliation," said a European official. "He had to sit there while his host conveyed criticisms of his country's human rights record and internal policies."

According to American and European diplomats, ASEAN states may be less than delighted at Burma's admission to their ranks. Some, including the Philippines, with its own recent memory of overthrowing an oppressive regime, are embarrassed by Rangoon's record. The admission of an economy as feeble as Burma's also creates difficulties in applying uniform standards. But, with other poor members of the ARF - Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia - it acts as a crucial geographical buffer against China.

"All of the ASEAN members have human rights problems," said the European official. "When they speak out against sanctions, and talk about different kinds of democracy, they are protecting themselves."

The danger lies in an East-West split within the ARF, especially if the SLORC launches a crackdown against the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.