Myanmar's Asean challenge


IN the new year, world attention turned to Myanmar as it assumed the coveted chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Wednesday to lead the 10-nation group to its economic community goal by 2015.

For India, Myanmar is not just its immediate neighbour but the "natural bridge" to Asean and Southeast Asia. As a full dialogue partner of the grouping, New Delhi welcomes the integration of Myanmar with the regional bloc with which its economic and security cooperation is fast expanding.

For almost two decades, Myanmar was isolated. But since 2011, the country has drawn massive international interest for its dramatic political and economic reforms. The government of President Thein Sein has released hordes of political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and opened the economy to foreign investment. The holding of the Asean gavel thus symbolises Myanmar's re-entry to the global community. At the same time, it gives Myanmar another opportunity to demonstrate that it is committed to democracy and wider integration with the world outside.

Myanmar joined Asean in 1997 and was to take the Asean chairmanship in 2006. But it was passed over amid international pressure over its poor human rights record.

There were fears that countries would boycott meetings there, as pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest and the United States and the European Union had imposed economic and political sanctions.

All that is now history. Suu Kyi has become a member of Parliament and her National League of Democracy is preparing to contest elections in 2015. Also, most sanctions have been lifted.

In a speech in October, Thein Sein said his government's recent reforms were a model for the region. "Myanmar's current political, economic and administrative reforms are a good example to other Asean countries," he said, adding Myanmar would strive to ensure that the country's year-long tenure as head of the regional bloc was a success.

During the new year, Myanmar will have to navigate three major priorities: accelerating Asean economic integration, reducing tension in the South China Sea and preparing the agenda for the future of Asean.

However, doubts have been raised about the country's ability to steer a grouping as significant as Asean in a rapidly changing strategic environment in the region where the US, China, Japan and the EU are intensifying their re-balancing efforts.

This has been compounded by the internal challenges the country faces and its abysmal infrastructure. Myanmar will hold many Asean meetings, including an East Asia summit, bringing together leaders from 18 nations.

The political narrative of Myanmar since mid-2012 has been dominated by ethnic conflicts and religious violence in which many have been killed and hundreds displaced, most of them Muslims. These problems figure high on the Asean agenda due to their repercussions on neighbouring countries and Asean as a whole.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sees the Asean chairmanship as a "good opportunity" for Myanmar to build on its democratic transition and socio-economic progress.

"We all agree and we are also concerned that there are still many more challenges, particularly communal violence, which they have been experiencing in the Rakhine state involving Rohingya minority groups," he said.

Naypyidaw will be closely watched on how it exercises its foreign policy, given the fact that the strategic interests of several powers converge in the country and there could be attempts to influence the chair and how it handles the Asean agenda, especially in the context of the territorial disputes of some Asean members with China. For instance, in 2012, Cambodia was accused of removing, at the behest of Beijing, a reference to the South China Sea in an Asean foreign ministers meeting communique.

For India, Myanmar is strategically important, given its proximity to the country's northeast, its role in countering insurgencies in the region and as an important partner in regional and sub-regional cooperation (BIMSTEC and Mekong Ganga, and the proposed BCIM corridor project). Moreover, critical issues like the dispute over boundary demarcation and religious violence leading to the Rohingya refugee crisis, with links found in the Bodh Gaya bombings in July, make it incredibly important for India to stay engaged with its neighbour.

Women working on a farm in Naypyidaw. Since 2011, the country has drawn massive international interest for its dramatic political and economic reforms. Pic by Syarafiq Abd Samad

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