At a time when Myanmar is experiencing an unprecedented transformation, the ASEAN countries have agreed to let it take on the leadership of the bloc as its Chairman for the year 2014. After decades of military rule, isolation and existence, Myanmar’s leadership has initiated a series of political, economic and administrative reforms that have elicited positive responses both regionally and globally, helping the country swiftly integrate into the regional and global communities.
While the chairmanship will provide legitimacy to the Myanmar regime, it will be a good opportunity for Myanmar to build its socio-economic progress and democratic transition. As the country opens, develops and assumes the role of a leader of ASEAN- the regional bloc of much political, economic and strategic value, Myanmar has much to be hopeful for as major development opportunities unfold in the light of its ASEAN chairmanship.
In addition, with its strategic geographical location between India and China and at the beginning point of the South-East Asian region with a vast reserve of natural resources, tourist destinations and young population, Myanmar could become Asia’s next economic frontier.
President Thein Sein’s office has allocated a budget of US $ 33.4 billion to host the ASEAN summit, according to a senior official from Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Not only will its position as a host boost its image within ASEAN, it will also complement and accelerate its much needed development. This will help end Myanmar’s long and unfortunate isolation from the global stage while boosting public confidence in the process.
However, Myanmar’s run as the leader of the group will face its considerable share of challenges, both at a domestic and regional level.
While at the domestic level, not only will it have to maintain a steady infrastructure to pull off the mammoth amount of high profile meetings in its upcoming cities, it will also have to mitigate the risk of increased media glare on the ongoing human rights crisis which involves discrimination by the state against the Rohingya Muslims.
At the regional level, it will have to walk on a thin line while dealing with the increased US-China rivalry and influence in the region, while it works to peacefully lead a region headed towards economic prosperity and integration.
Nevertheless, the chairmanship couldn’t have come at a better time for Myanmar. Its ability to lead ASEAN will determine its future credentials of a worthy regional partner and will signal at an unprecedented administrative and diplomatic maturity from a country that has only recently entered the international frontier.
Hoping that some concrete steps are taken to strengthen ASEAN unity and its political and economic future in light of the idea of the ASEAN economic forum, Myanmar would be a balanced negotiator.
But most importantly, why Myanmar will be an appropriate chair during this time is because it could be a fair referee in the simmering South China Sea dispute, which has most of the ASEAN countries locked in a territorial dispute with China. Because Myanmar isn’t in a dispute with China, isn’t a claimant country in the dispute and also maintains cordial relations with most of the claimant countries, it could prove to be the perfect mediator.
Myanmar is unlikely to be a doormat to come under the pressure of claimant countries like Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand and external powers like the USA and Japan.
But as it was expected Myanmar faces a host of challenges on the role of its ASEAN chairmanship.
Firstly, the country faces the logistical burden of hosting 1,100 meetings of high level diplomats and world leaders, with an underdeveloped domestic setup in terms of infrastructure and administration.
Along with the ASEAN chairmanship, Myanmar will host the East Asia Summit this year, which will bring ASEAN members together with other members like USA, China and Russia. Problems like power shortages, inadequate infrastructure in terms of poor electricity and internet availability, limited transport facilities, inadequate number of hotel rooms and most importantly, lack of experience in hosting large scale international conferences, will all add to Myanmar’s pressures.
To prepare itself, Myanmar won the bid to organize and host the 27th South-East Asian games in December last year so that it could acquaint itself with the pressures and challenges that come with managing major international events. These games were like a trial run for Myanmar.
Domestically, religious violence is also a concern with Myanmar. The religious conflicts have put Myanmar in the list of countries with an abysmal human rights abuses record. Since June 2012, religious conflicts have resulted in at least 240 deaths and forced an exodus of thousands. Increased violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, which erupted in 2013, again raised questions about the political establishment’s commitment to equality before the law.
As a result, a great number of Rohingya Muslim refugees, who are not considered as an ethnic minority group by the government of Myanmar have escaped to neighboring countries like Thailand and Malaysia.
Consequently, ASEAN urged the Myanmar government to take adequate measures as the religious issues in Myanmar spilled beyond its domestic borders. However, since some countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have increased assistance to the Rohingya Muslims, the problem is no longer an internal affair for Myanmar, but a challenge for ASEAN to coordinate solutions on sensitive issues in a cooperative manner.
This year will also bring to Myanmar’s doorstep a magnanimous amount of media scrutiny from all over the world for a government that has only begun to relax its attitude toward the press.
Anyway, unwanted media attention is helping human rights groups enforce pressure against the government of Myanmar, which will not help the image of Myanmar as a leader of ASEAN, a body which is steadfastly working to become a unified economic market by 2015.
National reconciliation is another issue. The increasing conflicts between the Myanmar government and separatist groups like the Kachin Independent Army are a cause for concern for the entire region.
Last year in October, Myanmar experienced at least ten bombings in cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Shan state. According to officials, these blasts were aimed at upsetting the public sentiment, put a dent on Myanmar’s security situation to deter foreign investments and summits and jeopardize the social fabric.
Also, Myanmar’s turn to chair ASEAN comes before ASEAN plans to implement the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which will be an economically integrated single market production base starting 2015.
The AEC aims to turn ASEAN into a more competitive economic region by increasing business and trade and investment cooperation among member nations through a number of measures like free trade agreements, abolition of import, etc.
However, more developed countries within the ASEAN group like Singapore, are critical of countries like Myanmar and Cambodia joining the community, arguing that less developed nations are not yet ready to be a part of an economic community that they have envisaged.
This could indeed become an issue within the grouping this year, as ASEAN comes closer to operationalizing the AEC. Thus Myanmar will have to tread cautiously while leading the group.
But the single issue with most severe consequences for ASEAN is the territorial disputes most of the member countries have with China in the South China Sea.
Cambodia’s chairmanship in 2012 was marred by a historic disagreement over the South China Sea, as a result of its close relationship with China and subsequent inability to manage the dispute fairly.
Myanmar’s chairmanship this year has been heralded as bringing a change because Myanmar is a non-claimant to the dispute. It is bigger and less dependant on China economically. In fact, China is more dependant on Myanmar’s strategic location.
However, given that China has been one of Myanmar’s consistent political and economic allies, member countries have been conscious of the fact that China would be able to influence Myanmar’s handling in 2014. Thus, Myanmar will have to consistently and fairly strive to maintain a balance between ASEAN unity and China over the dispute.
In addition, Myanmar will have to navigate through increased Chinese geo-political rivalries. Because it may find itself often caught in between the big powers, it could be difficult for Myanmar to really be able to take up its leadership independently.
Under the ASEAN policy of rotating chairmanship based on alphabetical order, Myanmar’s turn to lead the bloc came in 2006, but because it had to bow down to intense international pressure because of its poor human rights record a year before, it had to give up the position. In any case, it was an outcast in ASEAN until 1997, when it joined the regional forum after it released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Myanmar then joined the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996 and became an official member in 1997.
With a nominally civilian government installed in 2011 and led by President Thein Sein who first served as a General and now as the Prime Minister under the junta, he has heralded Myanmar into its post military phase. Although a new constitution was brought in by the junta in 2008 which entrenched the military in the parliament, Myanmar’s pseudo beginning to democracy has witnessed a series of reforms undertaken by the government.
Strict media censorship has been scrapped and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy has been welcomed into parliament following elections last year. The former General Thein Sein has received international praise and removal of Western sanctions for reforms that include freeing hundreds of political prisoners.
Such measures give hope that the Myanmar’s selected theme for this year’s chairmanship, which is ‘moving forward in unity in a peaceful and prosperous community’ indeed deliver, making Myanmar’s chairmanship a successful one.