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Caution by Junta's Asian Neighbors Reflects Their Self-Interest

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 28, 2007

BANGKOK, Sept. 27 -- The United States and Europe have fiercely criticized Burma's military rulers for clinging to power during another round of pro-democracy protests, this time led by unarmed monks. But closer to home, the junta's Asian neighbors and trading partners -- China chief among them -- have walked a distinctly more cautious line, expressing distress over the violence and, after long hesitation, renewing calls for reconciliation and eventual transition to democracy.

The discretion by China and Thailand in particular reflects sensitivity over their own political systems. China has been a one-party dictatorship for more than half a century, and its Communist rulers have given no sign they are willing to change anytime soon. In Thailand, a military coup d'etat gave power a year ago to a uniformed junta with different policies but the same origin -- the barracks -- as the one putting down marchers in Rangoon.

As a result, neither government can afford to be seen applauding as the Burmese monks cry out for an end to dictatorship. Were they to join the United States and Europe in clearly urging Burma's generals to step aside for democratic elections, the question in Beijing and Bangkok would be obvious: Why is democracy not also the right path for China and Thailand?

Partly out of these concerns, the main regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, had for two weeks reacted to the crisis by citing its doctrine of noninterference in the affairs of member nations, which include Burma. Like China, ASEAN limited itself to deploring the violence and urging some kind of peaceful settlement.

After protracted internal deliberations, the group's foreign ministers issued a harsher statement Thursday at the United Nations, saying they were "appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used" against demonstrators and "expressed revulsion" at reports of protests being suppressed with violence. But the ministers refrained from demanding an immediate end to the military junta's half-century of dictatorship, appealing to the generals instead to release political prisoners and carry out long-unfulfilled promises for a program of reforms aimed at movement toward a civilian government.

The limp response has generated unease among some in Thailand. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, published an essay in Friday's Bangkok Post under the headline, "ASEAN's failure and Thailand's shame."

"Always full of sound and fury, ASEAN has done too little to be taken seriously by the international community," he wrote.

India, Burma's giant neighbor in the other direction, also has avoided taking a hard line against the junta, even though it has a cherished and internationally respected tradition of democratic rule. The external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, explained that New Delhi regards the monks' uprising as an internal affair in which India's views have no place.

"The government of India is concerned at and is closely monitoring the situation in Myanmar," his ministry said in a statement Wednesday evening, using the junta's name for Burma. "India has always believed that Myanmar's process of political return and national reconciliation should be more inclusive and broad based."

India last year granted the Burmese junta a package of military assistance, including training and weapons sales, that analysts in New Delhi said included potentially valuable payback: help against Burma-based insurgents along India's northeastern border. In addition, the government-owned petroleum company signed a $150 million deal this week aimed at exploring Burma's natural gas reserves, adding to economic interests that have made India the fourth-largest investor in Burma.

"What has sealed our lips?" Karan Thapar, a noted television commentator, asked on the editorial page of Thursday's Hindustan Times. "The fact that the Burmese junta may cease to curb the activities of Indian militants and secessionists from Burmese soil. I don't deny that is an important concern. But surely the government could have found a forum of words to support the cause of democracy without breaking the pact with the generals. Our pact with them is Faustian and we need to break free of it."

China has been cited most frequently over the last week as a logical source of influence over Senior Gen. Than Shwe and his fellow generals on the State Peace and Development Council. Some reports from Beijing suggested that, behind the scenes, Chinese diplomats are urging restraint and reform on the generals. But in public, President Hu Jintao's government has limited its comments to calls for stability and reconciliation.

On Thursday, President Bush met with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to press Beijing to do more to rein in the junta. Yang was in a previously scheduled meeting with national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley at the White House when Bush asked the Chinese minister to join him in the Oval Office, aides said.

With its caution, Beijing has drawn criticism similar to that over its stance on Darfur, the embattled corner of western Sudan. With its close ties to Sudan, China was widely condemned for failure to influence the government to accept U.N. peacekeepers for Darfur.

After the Burma crisis erupted two weeks ago, Tang Jiaxuan, a senior Chinese foreign policy operative, was quoted by the official New China News Agency as telling Than Shwe, who was visiting, that he should "properly handle the issues" and "actively promote national reconciliation." With his reference to reconciliation, Tang seemed to be suggesting negotiations with the pro-democracy party led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But there was no mention of any need to change the system or get the military out of power.

Similarly, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Guangya, sought to block a U.N. Security Council statement urging the Burmese junta to avoid violence against the protesting monks and seek negotiations, according to reports from U.N. headquarters. Wang eventually relented, the reports said, and a statement issued Wednesday called for "restraint, especially from the government of Myanmar."

Like India, China has strategic and economic interests in Burma, which lies just to its south. Burmese gas reserves, estimated at 19 trillion cubic feet, have not escaped the notice of energy-hungry Chinese officials. Teak logging has long been a big business in the border area -- some of it legal, some of it not. In all, China's trade with Burma amounted to more than $2 billion last year, making China the biggest commercial partner of Burma.

Thailand's interests in Burma also have grown in recent years with an increase in cross-border trade. Much of that was natural gas and teak imported into Thailand.

More broadly, it has long had an interest in stability because an estimated 3 million Burmese refugees have crossed the border looking for safety from the country's recurrent turmoil. Many of the exile groups cheering on the monks, for instance, have issued their statements from Bangkok, the Thai capital.

"Thailand's response has always been a mixture of commercial self-interest and the impact military rule in Burma has on Thailand, with the refugees and all that," said David Mathieson, a Thailand-based Burma specialist with Human Rights Watch.

Kraisak Choonhavan, a Thai senator until last September's coup, said the military government in Bangkok should not fear condemning the repression in Burma because, according to its statements, it is in place temporarily and with a mission to set up a sustainable democratic government. That should be enough to set it apart, he said, from the Burmese generals who have been in power in one form or another for nearly half a century.

"I don't see any reason for them to be silent on this matter," Choonhavan said.

Correspondent Emily Wax in New Delhi, researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing and staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.

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