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ASEAN Chairmanship Offers Opportunity for Myanmar

January 8, 2014

On January 1, Myanmar assumed the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 1997, when Myanmar joined ASEAN, the country’s membership was met with stiff resistance because of its abhorrent human rights record under an oppressive military dictatorship. In 2006, Myanmar was encouraged to forfeit its chairmanship by ASEAN out of fear that the United States and other western nations would boycott the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the bad publicity this would garner. At the time, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, thousands of political prisoners were jailed, and political and economic sanctions by the U.S. and European Union were firmly in place.

Myanmar street at night

Myanmar is experiencing a huge human resources deficit which will challenge the government to cope with the 1,100 meetings it is required to host as ASEAN chair. Photo/Micah B. Rubin

But political and economic reforms under a “civilianized” administration of largely former military officers since March 2011 has been nothing short of remarkable, surprising both critics who advocated continued sanctions as well as supporters of dialogue. Moreover, reform efforts in Myanmar took shape around the time that the Obama administration announced its “pivot” or “rebalancing” policy to give greater attention to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, than to the Middle East. Consequently, the desire for reform in Myanmar, coupled with the U.S.’s rebalancing, had improved bilateral ties at a pace thought to be unimaginable just a few years ago.

Becoming chair of ASEAN has helped Myanmar gain political legitimacy, and offers the state the opportunity to be viewed as a responsible member of the international community. Myanmar faces numerous challenges as it begins its chairmanship. Given its decades-long isolation, the decay of its educational system, and government constraints on intellectual inquiry, Myanmar is experiencing a huge human resources deficit which will challenge the government to cope with the 1,100 meetings it is required to host as ASEAN chair, including the East Asian Summit, which in all likelihood, President Obama will attend. In addition to the shortage of skilled civil servants, Myanmar’s infrastructure is weak. Only 26 percent of the country’s population has access to electricity, and only 2 percent has access to the internet. “Brownouts” are a regular feature of daily life in Myanmar. It’s clear that Myanmar’s government recognizes these challenges, and that President Thein Sein and his supporters are doing their best to address them. But how successful this or any future government will be in addressing these challenges is unclear.

For Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship to be successful, it must accomplish the following:

1. Under the banner of  “moving forward in unity toward a peaceful and prosperous community,” Myanmar must maintain the momentum of the ASEAN integration process. In 2015, ASEAN hopes to achieve full political, economic, and social integration. Backsliding by Myanmar on its current economic reforms and possibly shying away from controversial issues such as human rights, religious freedom, and the environment will only invite scrutiny and call into question ASEAN’s effectiveness.

2. Myanmar must balance its relationships with fellow ASEAN members and extra-regional powers, particularly China and the United States. Whether Myanmar can achieve a balanced international stance on the South China Sea issue, and not repeat Cambodia’s disastrous performance as ASEAN Chair in 2012, remains to be determined.

If Myanmar is able to successfully chair ASEAN in 2014, it will boost the country’s national pride as well as the Thein Sein government’s internal legitimacy leading up to the 2015 national elections. However, Myanmar will be targeted for criticism on a number of issues, most notably the Muslim Rohingya problem that is an irritant in intra-ASEAN relations, with many Rohingya fleeing Myanmar for other Southeast Asian states, as well as Bangladesh. The government’s cease-fires with groups representing the most populous ethnic minorities, the Karen and Shan, are fragile. Until Myanmar’s government becomes more successful in pursuing ethnic reconciliation and preventing sectarian violence, its prospects for long-term stability and democratization will continue to remain clouded.

Myanmar enters 2014 with a degree of international, regional, and internal legitimacy and acceptance it had not experienced in decades. If Myanmar can grow into its newly found leadership role, and continue to pursue political and economic reforms while working toward national reconciliation, this should allow ASEAN to achieve greater economic and political strength, as well as to foster regional unity. A successful chairmanship can also help Myanmar become a peaceful, unified, democratic society.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at john.brandon@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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