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Forty-five chief diplomats from all over Europe and Asia had just gathered in Hanoi for the ASEM Foreign Ministers' Meeting on Monday morning when the news came through that North Korea had detonated its second nuclear bomb.
ASEM meetings, like most Asian multilateral diplomatic gatherings, are generally pretty soporific affairs. (Not that European, African or American summits are exactly free-for-alls of creative thinking and provocative debate. But it's a difference of degree.) Nothing is said that might conceivably offend the sensibilities of any of the countries involved. Let's put it this way: The country that generally says the most outrageous and provocative stuff at an Asian diplomatic summit is Japan. That may give you an idea of how mild-mannered the tone usually is.
This morning was about as close as an Asian multilateral meeting gets to a general freak-out. Everyone had expected the main action to focus on Myanmar. By re-trying Aung San Suu Kyi over a bizarre Boy Scouting escapade gone wrong, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, had managed to bring things to a point where everyone, even its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbors, felt compelled to issue a note of clear if modest disapproval. The lead, of course, would be taken by the EU nations to which the rest of the world generally subcontracts its moral-disapproval duties these days. But this time it seemed a fair number of Asian nations might be expected to follow along.
And so at about 11:15 a.m., in the nearly empty marble halls of Hanoi's three-year-old National Convention Center, Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan Win and his aides went into a meeting with two EU foreign ministers, Jan Kohout of the Czech Republic and Carl Bildt of Sweden. The EU handles such affairs via what it call its "troika": a representative of the European Commission, a representative of the country holding the rotating EU presidency (currently the Czech Republic), and a representative of the country on deck to take over the presidency next year (Sweden).
By the time they came out an hour later, everyone was talking about the North Korean nuclear test.
A party of Burmese diplomats confronts the press in a fashion similar to a school of herrings confronting dolphins: They turn in unison and break for open water, silently and as quickly as possible — in this case, the elevators. The Burmese were followed by Kohout, a tall, stocky guy who stopped in front of the TV cameras and began answering questions from his own national press, in Czech. Most of the press thus gravitated to the towering, cranelike figure of Carl Bildt. Bildt is a sober and imposing presence with the Scandinavian diplomat's talent for saying rather obvious and unobjectionable things in emphatic and forceful tones — the righteous common sense of a Calvinist preacher.
Burmese FM Nyan Win, front center, flees into an elevator to escape press. (Matt Steinglass/GlobalPost)
Bildt said his government, on behalf of the EU, had called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in order to create the proper atmosphere for Myanmar's upcoming elections next year. "What is necessary for those elections is to have an inclusive dialogue with all political forces in the country. That is the necessary precondition for the stability that I think everyone is seeking for the country to be able to move forward," Bildt said. "And for that to be possible, there must of course be freedom for the different political forces."
Who could possibly disagree with such a common-sense statement of democratic principles? But what makes these situations slightly surreal is that no one in their right mind, Mr. Bildt included, could possibly expect that Myanmar's government has any interest in guaranteeing "freedom for the different political forces." Such freedom is not really conceivable in a Burmese context. In fact, across most of East Asia, from Singapore to Vietnam to China, the idea that political action should be allowed to take place in a protected sphere free of government interference or fear of retribution is nonsense. It's not just that governments don't permit such freedom; it's that for the most part culture and society do not expect such freedom, do not consider it a priority or even understand how it is supposed to work. The spectacle presented is of an experienced, intelligent European diplomat calling in clear and common-sense terms for the respect of human rights that everyone knows do not exist, in a regime that has no interest in introducing them.
The sense of surreality grew some hours later, when Japan called an unscheduled press conference to announce that it was seeking a forceful response to the North Korean nuclear test. Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kazuo Kodama rushed in, out of breath, to announce that Japan would ... push for ASEM to issue a separate statement on the test. The nuclear test was a "threat to the peace and stability ... of the global community." And that was about it. What did he think the North Koreans were aiming for? What strategy could the international community use to bring them around? Kodama had not a word on this.
And yet for all that, one senses that these repeated invocations of common-sense points — testing nuclear weapons violates the nuclear nonproliferation regime and threatens world security; repressing the political opposition makes it impossible to carry out legitimate elections — are slowly having an effect. What's clear at this ASEM meeting is that Myanmar and North Korea, especially the latter, have gradually succeeded in alienating even their close neighbors. They have been able to flout the disapproval of the "international community" when that community meant only the democratic first world. But as they increasingly embarrass and provoke even their developing-country neighbors, they are starting to find that there are real limits to what they can do. Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva's statement disapproving of Suu Kyi's detention counted for 10 times as much as any statement to the same effect by the United States or the U.K. And the very fact that ASEM's agenda has been derailed by these unexpected embarrassments from North Korea and Myanmar is perhaps the most powerful reason to expect a change in attitudes. Asian governments don't like human rights issues because they mess up the agenda, spoil the atmosphere and interfere with efforts to keep the economy humming. North Korea and Myanmar, increasingly, are messing up the Asian agenda, spoiling the atmosphere and interfering with efforts to keep the economy humming. And that's why bodies like ASEM are gradually becoming more forceful in denouncing their misbehavior.