Why Myanmar (and everyone else) is ignoring Manila.

Among the five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines is Myanmar’s pain in the ass.

In Singapore last week, President Arroyo slapped the junta’s face when she called on the regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi and to hasten democratization in Burma. If the junta will not do so, Arroyo warned that the Philippine Congress will likely reject the landmark ASEAN Charter, a scenario that made ASEAN leaders and diplomats shiver.

Very brave indeed. But unfortunately for the Philippines and for the people of Burma, Arroyo’s call fell on deaf ears.

This is not surprising, of course. For there are a lot of reasons for the junta to ignore Madame Arroyo.

First among these is the fact that, unlike Malaysia, SIngapore and Thailand, the Philippines is not a major trading partner of the regime. This means that the Philippines is not a part of the Burmese political equation. In other words, Myanmar dictator Than Swe hardly cares about what President Arroyo thinks simply because he’s not doing business with her.

Perhaps the only leverage Manila has over Myanmar is its veto power in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  When Arroyo said Philippine Congress is unlikely to ratify the ASEAN Charter, she was warning the members of the  ASEAN, especially those that enjoy real leverage over Myanmar like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, that unless they do more to pressure the Burmese generals to free Suu Kyi and to improve its human rights record, the Philippines would be a hindrance to ASEAN’s goal of stronger regional integration.

The region’s leaders worked hard for this Charter and the last thing they would want is one country vetoing it. That means that they probably take Arroyo’s threat seriously. If Manila would continue its hardline stance against the junta, it is not at all unlikely for the ASEAN to talk about partial suspension and other sanctions against the regime in the near future.

To assume, however, that Than Swe would be pressured by the threat of suspension to release Suu Kyi will be naive. Given the pariah nature of the ruling generals, I don’t think they value membership in the ASEAN more than they value the sense of security they get from Suu Kyi’s  detention. Afterall, isolation used to be one of the political virtues advanced by the Nyawpyitaw regime.

But perhaps more than this lack of leverage, the main reason why Manila’s call for Burmese democratization fell on deaf ears is the fact that the Philippines under Arroyo lacks the integrity and the moral ascendancy to preach about human rights and democracy.

In the Philippines, the widespread impression is that democratic institutions are under constant attacks by the Arroyo administration. Arroyo was able to get away with several impeachment attempts through technicalities and shrewd political maneuvers despite the fact that conclusive evidence show that she cheated her way to office. Also, the Arroyo administration is notorious in Manila for its contempt against several Congressional investigations pertaining to corruption and election-rigging. Until now, the legitimacy of Arroyo’s mandate remains questionable.

More than that, the perception in the international community is that the Philippines’ human rights record is no better than Myanmar’s. For instance, killing of journalists is more widespread in the Philippines than in Myanmar. In fact, it is more widespread in the Philippines than everywhere else except in Iraq. Extra-judicial and political killings are rampant too. Just like in Myanmar, evidence point to some members of the military as the number one violators of human rights in the Philippines, yet government action to bring them to justice is at best unsatisfactory.

Days after Arroyo bashed Myanmar in Singapore, nine members of the European parliament visited the Philippines. While they praised Arroyo’s efforts to support international calls for freedom and democracy in Burma, they reminded Arroyo that “the Philippines’ image as a freedom-loving country is under question in the free world.”

They could not have said it better.

I admire President Arroyo for her courage and for being the only voice of reason in the ASEAN. But her words must be matched by her actions. She should first clean up her backyard before urging her neighbors to clean up theirs.

Top reason why Myanmar (and everyone else) is ignoring Manila’s call to free Burma? Because Manila is not practicing what she is preaching.


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