Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright unleashed a blistering attack Sunday on Burma’s military government, describing it as a repressive, unrepresentative regime that profits from illicit narcotics trafficking. She challenged other Southeast Asian countries to open a dialogue with Burma’s harassed political opposition.
Albright’s remarks were delivered during a closed-door meeting of 21 foreign ministers from major Asian and Western nations here in the Malaysian capital. Usually accustomed to a more low-key, consensual style in these yearly talking sessions, some of the ministers were taken aback by the bluntness of Albright’s critique.
One Southeast Asian official who sat in on the closed-door session later described Albright’s remarks as “really brutal.” Shaking his head, the official added, “It was very harsh, very sharp.” He said Burmese Foreign Minister U Ohn Gyaw sat stone-faced throughout Albright’s denunciation of his regime.
But, the diplomat said, many of the Asian diplomats present, constrained by their traditional reluctance to openly criticize neighbors, privately said they were glad to see Albright take the lead and shared her frustration at the slow pace of democratization in Burma and the junta’s continuing repression.
“The ASEAN countries are not blind,” said the official, referring to the nine-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which sponsored Sunday’s forum-and admitted Burma and Laos as ASEAN members this week. “They are not unaware that the people in (Burma) need to be shaken up a little bit, and they are quite happy someone is doing it.”
The military government in Burma took power in 1988. The military leadership allowed multiparty elections to be held two years later, but ignored the results after being trounced by the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time. Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, remained under house arrest until last year, and pro-democracy advocates have been targets for repression.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also made a strong statement critical of Burma. But diplomats who attended the meeting said Albright’s remarks were by far the strongest.
Albright initially had not intended to make the remarks verbally, said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. She had made many of the same criticisms of Burma in a prepared text delivered to conference delegates at the start of the session, which is a forum on Asian security. But Burns said Albright felt prompted to speak out after she became angered at a presentation by Ohn Gyaw in which he glossed over Burma’s political repression and human rights record and presented a picture of the country that one U.S. aide described as “Orwellian.”
“She had not planned this ahead of time,” Burns said. “She took issue with how he described the political situation in Burma.” Burns added: “She feels quite strongly that it’s important to talk frankly with the Burmese leaders. They don’t get that at home.”
Albright called Burma a country that is uniquely repressive, and the only member of the ASEAN group to have been singled out for criticism by the United Nations for failing to respect the results of an election. She called Burma the only nation in Southeast Asia where it is illegal to own a fax machine and the only country “where the government protects and profits from the drug trade … Drug money is laundered with such impunity in Burma that it taints legitimate investment.”
Diplomats inside the session said Ohn Gyaw replied with only a single sentence - to correct the record, he said, and say that Suu Kyi had not been elected to any government post in 1990.
Albright called on the other eight ASEAN nations to use their “constructive engagement” policy to push for more liberalization in Burma and to open a regular dialogue with Suu Kyi and her party.
Southeast Asian leaders responded publicly that they would consider having a dialogue with the Burmese opposition. “We have studied this very carefully,” said Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia’s foreign minister and chairman of Sunday’s conference. “We will bear in mind the views expressed by all, including Mrs. Albright.”
But privately, some ASEAN diplomats said they would be uncomfortable with opening any dialogue with Burma’s political opposition, because to do so might open up other countries in the group that control dissent and harass political opponents to similar kinds of interference. Vietnam and new member Laos remain single-party communist states, Indonesia places tight restrictions on political opponents, and even the governments of Singapore and Malaysia have been accused by the West of showing intolerance toward dissent.