Taking hold of the ASEAN gavel from Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on October 10, the normally subdued President U Thein Sein sported an uncharacteristic grin. He had good reason to smile.
For most of the past two decades Myanmar was the outcast of the 10-nation bloc. In just a few years it has successfully transformed its image to the extent where Myanmar’s partners have agreed to let it take on the leadership of ASEAN at a time of unprecedented change.
In 1995, under the rule of former Senior General Than Shwe, Myanmar was an outsider looking in at ASEAN, which was then a seven-nation group. Bolstered by the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in July of that year, Myanmar managed to talk its way into the bloc.
In 1996, Myanmar joined the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). It became an official member in July 1997, along with Laos. Cambodia, delayed by internal political turmoil, would join two years later as the tenth member.
Despite its newfound status in the region, Myanmar remained aloof from ASEAN because of perceptions that other member nations were meddling in its domestic affairs.
Senior General Than Shwe almost never attended ASEAN meetings, opting instead to send his prime ministers or foreign minister.
According to the recently released Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma, by academic Renaud Egreteau and journalist Larry Jagan, some observers believe Senior General Than Shwe created the prime minister post in 2003 precisely so that he did not need to attend ASEAN meetings.
Under the ASEAN policy of rotating the chairmanship based on alphabetical order, Myanmar was finally tapped to lead the bloc in 2006. However, in July of the preceding year it bowed to intense international pressure to relinquish the position because of its poor human rights record.
Given this history, the chairmanship will be a coming out party for President U Thein Sein and his government as they enter the second half of their five-year term. It will be a chance to showcase the government’s steps towards democratic and economic liberalisation, as well as the development of Nay Pyi Taw, which was for years avoided by the international community.
“[The chairmanship] symbolically sanctions Myanmar’s re-entry into the concert of nations, with the veto from Western powers eventually gone,” said Mr Egreteau
“Second, it will certainly enable the country and its leadership to draw attention [to] its needs as well as its commitment to change – whatever form this political, social and economic change takes.”
Despite the excitement, however, Myanmar will face serious challenges as it attempts to successfully steer ASEAN through to 2016.
“Myanmar’s chairmanship is not an easy job at this moment,” cautioned U Kyaw Lin Oo, an independent political commentator and coordinator of the Myanmar People Forum Working Group.
To begin there is the logistics of hosting more than 1000 meetings of top diplomats, most of which will take place in the sprawling capital. The position will bring additional media scrutiny for a government that is only beginning to relax its attitude toward the press. Unwanted attention from the numerous human rights groups focused on Myanmar is already increasing.
These domestic hurdles aside, from there are larger regional issues at stake for the bloc.
Myanmar’s turn as chair comes a year before the full implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), an economically integrated single market and production base.
The AEC aims to turn ASEAN into a more competitive economic region by increasing business and trade cooperation among member nations through a number of measures including free trade agreements, abolishing import duties and streamlining of investment.
More developed economies, notably Singapore, are critical of countries like Myanmar and Cambodia joining the community, arguing that less-developed nations are not yet ready.
But no single issue has dominated previous ASEAN summits as much as the infighting over member states’ territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
A small breakthrough came at the China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting Summit in June, when China agreed to conduct official consultations on a formal code of conduct for the South China Sea. Such a code would force China to deal with ASEAN as a whole, rather than Bejing’s preferred option of negotiating with individual members. The code is yet to materialise, however, and the issue is certain to drag on in to 2014.
China has been one of Myanmar’s staunchest political and economic allies and U Kyaw Lin Oo said members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were conscious of concerns in the region that China would be able to influence its handling of the issue in 2014.
Fuelling these fears among some ASEAN members will be memories of 2012, when chair Cambodia was accused of censoring an ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting communiqué to remove references to the South China Sea at the behest of China.
As the other members refused to issue the amended version, it became the first such meeting to end without an official communiqué. The dispute reflected concerns that Phnom Penh was using its position to push Beijing’s line rather than working as a mediator for its ASEAN counterparts.
In an indication of the delicate nature of the South China Sea issue, five members of parliament contacted by The Myanmar Times for comment last week on how Myanmar could handle the dispute declined to comment.
But U Aung Lynn, director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ ASEAN Affairs Department, said the government would work closely with its ASEAN neighbours on the code of conduct for the South China Sea that the regional bloc is discussing with China.
He said Myanmar is also seeking to put other issues on the agenda that it believes are also important to the region’s future.
“We are concerned about the effects of climate change, and we look forward to sharing our experience and discussing what to do about it,” U Aung Lynn said.
Danny Chian Siong Lee, director of the community affairs development department at the ASEAN Secretariat, said the bloc’s position on the South China Sea issue was that a resolution should be reached through peaceful negotiation and engagement, a view he said was shared by China. ASEAN and China had agreed to start discussions on a code of conduct on the South China Sea, he said.
Last January, Myanmar set up groups of diplomats, professors and other specialists to discuss the South China Sea disputes. “We have been observing the situation in the South China Sea,” said retired ambassador U Nyunt Maung Shein, a group member.
As a non-claimant country that is not in dispute with China over territory, Myanmar is seen as unlikely to come under the same kind of domestic pressure as claimant countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, said Kavi Chongkittavorn, an ASEAN expert and consultant for The Nation newspaper.
President U Thein Sein has offered little on the issue or how Myanmar will use its chairmanship role, saying only that the country will focus on “moving forward in unity in a peaceful and prosperous community”.
Nilanthi Samaranayake, an Asia analyst at the US-based CNA Strategic Studies, said Myanmar will likely try to take a middle of the road approach to the issue.
“Nay Pyi Taw will walk a careful line and strive not to be seen as Cambodia was last year with regard to China,” she said.
“It [Myanmar] still appears to want strategic options other than China, and this will be a good opportunity to present its new orientation in a high-profile, multilateral setting.”
Both U Kyaw Lin Oo and Ms Samaranayake agreed that Myanmar would likely learn from Cambodia’s experience in 2012.
“ASEAN member countries were not satisfied by Cambodia,” U Kyaw Lin Oo said. “Myanmar must learn this lesson.”
Source: Myanmar Times