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A Pro-Democracy Foreign Policy?

From The Korea Times
May 9, 2005
link to this article.

South Korea has distinguished itself as a precious example of what other Asian nations yearning for democracy can accomplish. Seoul should, therefore, take a leadership role on democracy in Asia.

To do so, however, South Korea must first change its foreign relations with the military dictatorship in Burma (called Myanmar by the regime), to reflect the commitment Koreans have shown through their long struggle for democracy.

The European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions against the government in Rangoon. In all except humanitarian exchanges, they will not have anything to do with the military junta running the country. It is this international condemnation that gives conscientious members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) persuasive leverage over the junta.

So much so, that when ASEAN met in the Philippines in April, they debated whether to deny Myanmar the rotating presidency, because of its embarrassing brutality against its citizens and its insincere negotiations with the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

It is true they failed to deny the junta the rotating chair. But the fact it was debated at all was a step in the right direction. After all, ASEAN countries are bound by a long-held policy of non-interference into the internal affairs of member states for complicated institutional and historical reasons. The value of not intervening into the internal matters of another country essentially made it possible for the nations of Southeast Asia to build the regional body in the first place in 1967.

But Seoul is not bound by that history. In fact, if it joins with the EU and U.S. in ratcheting up the pressure on Myanmar, an effective two-track approach could be forged _ hard pressure from outside ASEAN and soft persuasion by the Philippines and others from inside it.

There is another reason for Korea to pressure Burma on the issue of democracy. Burma and Korea share a common history: robust pro-democracy movements in the 1980s.

But where Korea transitioned into democracy, Burma regressed. In fact, in 1988, nearly 3,000 people were massacred during nationwide protests. Despite NLD activists being killed and its offices smashed, the organization and its leader became more popular.

In 1990, Burma had its first democratic elections ever, both because of the irrepressible popularity of the NLD and Aung San Suu Ky, and because of international pressure. Aung and her party won in a landslide. But the junta ignored the results and tightened its grip on power.

Now, international pressure must be redoubled, and Seoul should lead the effort in Asia. Burma is under the grip of a regime of brutal repression, including violence against religious and ethnic minorities, forced relocation, beatings, child labor, rape and murder. An Australian doctor working for the human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide said he saw signs of chemical weapons being used by the military in their attacks on rebels near the border of Thailand.

Burma is as bad a human rights offender as North Korea, yet it does not get the attention of many so-called human rights NGOs in South Korea. Despite minor steps to placate international pressure, nothing has changed in the way the Burmese junta treats its citizens. A high number of political prisoners remain locked up, including Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Ky. Forced labor is still routinely utilized by the military.

In January 2005, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) reported what the Burmese junta buys with the income its gets from trade. Over 40 percent of its national budget goes to weapons. The report also highlights what the government does not do with the revenue, spending a paltry 0.3 percentage point of GDP on health care.

While overall investment into the country has been decreasing, Daewoo International Corporation is investing in Burma to profit from its oil and natural gas resources that remain virtually untapped, in part due to international economic sanctions imposed on the brutal regime in Rangoon.

Have South Koreans forgotten the dark days of their history, of the dictatorship and oppression they suffered under Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo? Have they forgotten the help democracy activists received from the U.S., Japan and Europe? It is high time for Asian democracies, particularly South Korea, to step up to the plate and help nurture liberal movements in Asia.

For starters, Seoul should loosen restrictions on asylum seekers from Myanmar. The National Assembly should pass a law prohibiting firms like Daewoo from doing business there and restrict the assets of firms from Myanmar and their finances in South Korean banks. Seoul should also implement a travel ban on Burma’s top leaders and their families from vacationing in South Korea.

The South Korean government should then aggressively push for cooperation with other Asian countries, particularly Japan, which is also doing business there, on the diplomatic front with the aim of forming a united policy in support of democracy in Burma.

South Korea should lead an Asia-backed ban on trade, prohibiting the import of Burmese textiles. That is what the government in Burma fears most. The BBC reported that Burmese economists estimate it would shut down the country's garment industry, consisting of firms by-and-large privately owned by military officials.

In addition to Seoul’s economic prowess and cultural influence, South Korea’s flourishing civil society and its shining example of creating democratic governance out of the arbitrary oppression of dictatorship make Korea a liberal beacon for Asian people everywhere. It is time for the political leadership in Seoul to extend that possibility to Burmese struggling for as bright a future in their society.

After all, if the democracies in Asia do not do more to support and encourage democratic movements in their region, who will?

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