In the hotseat

As Myanmar prepares to take the reins of Asean next month, what can be expected of its historic chairmanship?

Daniel Besant
December 2, 2013

As Myanmar prepares to take the reins of Asean next month, what can be expected of its historic chairmanship?

By Daniel Besant
“Asean we are bonded as one / Looking outward to the world / For peace, our goal from the very start / And prosperity to last.” – from “The Asean Way”, the bloc’s official anthem

Passing the baton: Myanmar’s president Thein Sein (left) and Hassanai Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei, at the handover of the Asean chairmanship. AFP
Passing the baton: Myanmar’s president Thein Sein (left) and Hassanai Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei, at the handover of the Asean chairmanship. AFP

Asean may well be looking outward to the world, but in the coming months that gaze will be reflected, largely due to its incoming chair. As Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, took hold of the gavel at the handover ceremony in Brunei on October 10, the media asked if Myanmar was ready to assume the position of Asean chair on January 1, pointing to its record on human rights and its lack of infrastructure.
In a speech in Myanmar’s capital on October 29, Thein Sein pledged that the country would strive to ensure peace and prosperity during its year-long tenure as head of the regional bloc. The president also suggested 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 that it was a “national duty” for Myanmar citizens to actively participate in ensuring the country’s term is a success.
Myanmar is set to hold more than 1,000 Asean meetings and welcome 16 heads of state on official visits in the coming year. During the World Economic Forum, which was hosted by the country earlier this year, many infrastructure problems were made glaringly obvious. For most, travel to the capital, Naypyidaw, involved a long journey by road from Yangon airport. Only a select few were able to land at the capital’s airport and, for those lucky enough to alight there, the 30-minute taxi ride into town often cost more than the flight. Upon arrival, many found a shortage of hotel rooms along with poor internet
connections and frequent power cuts.
Despite these deficiencies, experts are upbeat about the country’s ability to cope with its influx of visitors in 2014.
“I think Myanmar should be prepared in terms of new capacity,” said Nilanthi Samaranayake, an Asia analyst at the Centre for Naval Analyses’ strategic studies division. “Any shortcomings would be understandable given this is a coming-out role for Myanmar. Asean guests will likely recognise Myanmar’s unique evolution and that not all member countries are at the same level of development.”
The country may well be stretched but it will cope with logistical problems, agreed Tluang Lian Hnin, a Myanmar analyst at Lahva Research Group. However, he added that the lack of a completed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement could spark unrest – a grave embarrassment for the government during its big moment.
“If the armed groups and government can reach an agreement on political dialogue and are able to compromise, this would be a big help for the government, and to the region as a whole,” said Tluang Lian Hnin. “Otherwise, there could be disturbances at events and armed groups may make their presence known.”
Of course, in recent years, China’s shadow has loomed large over Asean proceedings. In its 2012 stint as chair, Cambodia was heavily criticised for toadying to China over the South China Sea dispute.
“If Beijing tries to overplay its hand and push the Myanmar government too hard on Asean matters, it’s likely that Myanmar will push back,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “Myanmar will likely not repeat Cambodia’s mistake… Other governments are still angry with Hun Sen and the Cambodians for the fact that their actions dragged Asean down in the eyes of the international community. Myanmar will not risk such an embarrassment during its watch.”
Myanmar has strong ties to China, as witnessed by the opening of a gas pipeline between the two countries in October, though it has been careful not to appear beholden to its giant neighbour, and even suspended construction of the controversial Chinese-led Myitsone dam. Whether this was little more than smoke and mirrors remains open to debate, and Naypyidaw’s relationship with Beijing will be followed with interest in the coming months.
“We don’t anticipate any significant changes in Myanmar’s relationship with China,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a human rights organisation based in Southeast Asia. “The authorities are playing a diplomatic balancing act, positioning themselves between US and Chinese interests, and this will undoubtedly continue, with the Asean chair as increased leverage.”
Others believe that Myanmar will concentrate on regional integration and will certainly avoid contentious issues. “Myanmar will probably focus on administering the final measures that will lead towards the establishment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015,” said Professor Maitrii Aung-Thwin of the National University of Singapore. “Myanmar officials will likely welcome advice and suggestions from all of the former Asean chairs, including Cambodia.”
Whatever Myanmar’s government focuses on, the human rights situation in the country will be under greater scrutiny than ever. Although Thein Sein has been praised for releasing waves of political prisoners and relaxing media censorship, his government’s reaction to violence against Muslims has been watched carefully. Hundreds of Muslims have been killed and over 140,000 displaced in clashes between the Buddhist majority and their Muslim neighbours.
Criticism is not likely to come from Asean itself, however. The bloc has a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states – a strategy that has been criticised for hampering the resolution of conflict in the region. Each member nation has a veto, and policy cannot move forward unless all members are in agreement, meaning problematic issues are usually left on the back burner.
“Asean does not deal well at all with human rights issues, despite provisions in the Asean charter, the so-called constitution of the organisation, that set out respect for human rights as one of the core principles of the grouping,” said Robertson. “I think we will see little or no public criticism of Myanmar from Asean or its member states, unless there is a real upsurge in anti-Muslim violence that compels Indonesia or Malaysia to react because of public pressure at home to say something.”
As for human rights on the ground, the coming year may not see any major steps forward in Myanmar. In fact, the government is likely to continue on its current ‘steady’ path.
“The Thein Sein administration has already taken significant steps to address human rights issues,” said Maitrii Aung-Thwin. “These measures are part of a longer reconciliation program that all stakeholders agree is necessary for the country to successfully heal from over 50 years of civil war.
“We need to bear in mind that what are termed ‘human rights’ issues are closely tied to other socio-economic, bread-and-butter issues such as poverty alleviation, ceasefire agreements, education and healthcare. [These issues] will likely continue to be a priority for subsequent administrations well beyond Myanmar’s turn as the Asean chair.”
Losing face: observers say Aung San Suu Kyi is ignoring human rights issues.
Losing face: observers say Aung San Suu Kyi is ignoring human rights issues.

But what of Aung San Suu Kyi, someone so closely identified with the advancement of democracy in Myanmar? How will she approach her country’s time shepherding the flock? The consensus seems to be that she will not want to rock the boat with Naypyidaw and that her eye is set firmly on taking the presidency. Interestingly, to get the top spot, she will need to get the constitution rewritten, as she is barred from holding the post after being married to a foreigner.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has made constitutional reform a significant element of her political agenda,” said Maitrii Aung-Thwin. “Recent statements [she] made in Singapore suggest she is more interested in rewriting the constitution than taking part in the implementation of the AEC.”
Others offered more stinging criticism. “Aung San Suu Kyi is rapidly becoming a world-class disappointment on human rights,” said Robertson. “She is pursuing a ‘go along to get along’ policy with the government and the military, and that means keeping her rights criticisms to a minimum. For her, Asean is a sideshow to what she sees as the central drama, which is figuring out how she can persuade the Burmese military to let her run for president in 2015.”
Also view:
“The number of the beast” – The anti-Muslim 969 movement is fuelling  the fire of religious discontent in Myanmar
“Kings of their castles” – A tendency to look out for number one has left the ten-member Asean bloc in a shambles
“The heir apparent” – It is Vietnam’s turn to provide the secretary general who will lead Asean for the next five years. Is the country’s sole candidate the man for the job?
“State of the union” – Asean’s outgoing Secretary General Dr Surin Pitsuwan discusses the burning issues at the heart of a diverse region

Read more articles