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No country resembles a laboratory of political and economic development more than Myanmar [Burma]. A country with effectively two capitals, old and new, in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, Myanmar is briskly moving from one reform to another. Its multiple exchange rate system has been unified and stable. The infrastructure is receiving facelifts all over, much slower than demand but moving forward nevertheless. Human resource capacity is being bolstered in short order.
Yet none of these efforts appear to be in step with the growing demands and expectations for a country that came out of isolation just two years ago. All eyes in Myanmar are fixated on the road ahead, starting this year with the Southeast Asian Games in December and next year with the ASEAN chairmanship, culminating with presidential polls in 2015.
Its ASEAN chairmanship will have much to say about how Myanmar proceeds into its critical election year and how ASEAN finalises its plan to be a regional community by the end of 2015, as stipulated in the ASEAN charter.
The ASEAN chairmanship next year thus comes at a momentous time for both Myanmar and for ASEAN. It will be a vindication and deliverance in view of the global and regional pressure that resulted in Myanmar’s decision to skip its rotational turn in 2006. Next year will be the first time Myanmar has chaired ASEAN since it joined the organisation in 1997.
As ASEAN chair, Myanmar will have an unprecedented opportunity to shine and display its rich history and ongoing reform process towards greater democratisation.
President Thein Sein, a genuine reformer by all accounts, will likely stand among top world leaders at the G20 summit. And Myanmar will attract worldwide attention as it hosts a string of top-level summits in October next year.
At the same time, Myanmar will be exposed to the risk of not making enough progress on human rights related to recent and continual religious and ethnic violence. The stakes for Myanmar next year are the highest the country will see since it opened up and ushered in breath-taking reforms.
ASEAN chairmanship is what the ASEAN chair makes of it. Here is what Myanmar officials will have to work on with sophistication, commitment and resolve. Myanmar will have to chair hundreds of ASEAN-related meetings up and down and across ministries, sectors and issues. Myanmar has to set out a coherent and comprehensive set of initiatives and work plans.
Its long chairmanship theme, “Moving forward in unity towards a peaceful and prosperous Community”, is instructive of Myanmar’s concerns. Myanmar’s leaders and officials would do best to make this theme consonant with ASEAN’s interests. Their aim next year should be to make what is good for Myanmar also good for ASEAN.
The key domestic words of forward, unity, peace, prosperity and Community with a capital C make sense. Moving forward means continuing with the ongoing reforms.
Unity is integral to Myanmar’s imperative of maintaining workable core-periphery relations between the Burman majority, which represents about half the population, and the diverse ethnic minorities that constitute the other half. Peace is the flipside of unity in Myanmar, and it is why the country’s name centres around the word “union”. Prosperity suggests that the reform process and opening up must deliver a sense of better livelihoods and mobility to the Myanmar people.
The only keyword in Myanmar’s chairing slogan that is focused on ASEAN is the capitalised Community. The ASEAN Community 2015 is the final and central aim of the ASEAN Charter, operationalised into three pillars of political-security, economic and socio-cultural.
Myanmar has to ensure that its slogan also provides benefits for ASEAN. Forward, unity, peace and prosperity are all objectives that ASEAN is also aiming for. Moving forward as a regional organisation in view of the charter, in unity over contentious issues such as the South China Sea, with internal and intramural peace in light of internal conflicts in Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia and with the aim of economic growth are all part and parcel of what ASEAN was established to achieve and aspires to in its charter plans.
Myanmar’s chairmanship theme and interests next year have to be made analogous to ASEAN’s interests and concerns as a regional organisation. This is a fundamental task of Myanmar planners and policymakers.
Beyond the theme, Myanmar will be overwhelmed by the meetings and responsibilities of chairing ASEAN for the first time. The sheer number of meetings, technical issues, logistical requirements and funding will exhaust Myanmar’s resources. Here is where Myanmar will need external assistance, including technical training and human resource development from ASEAN partners, such as Thailand and Singapore.
Myanmar should come up with a kind of template for chairing ASEAN by quickly adapting lessons learned by Cambodia last year and Brunei this year. Brunei’s chairmanship this year has been seen as successful despite the country’s limited resources and small size. Myanmar can see how Brunei does the summits this month and learn from it. And there will be substantive matters to deal with as ASEAN is now situated amid the growing rivalry between the United States and China.
The potential spoilers for Myanmar are the ethnic and religious violence involving the Rohingya, which must be seen to be addressed. This is a raw and sensitive issue among Myanmar people, especially those in Rakhine state, who see their country as a transit point for the people they call Bengali. But the international community sees it differently.
Myanmar needs an adept media and publicity office to explain their case persuasively as much as international opinion can accept. The growing competition between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann and army chief General Min Aung Hlaing as well as President Thein Sein can undermine Myanmar’s chairmanship if it is not managed sufficiently behind the scenes.
Chairing ASEAN is already achieving a great deal for Myanmar. The country has come a long way. It deserves its turn. It should keep expectations low and aspirations high. The ASEAN chairmanship will reflect well and powerfully on Myanmar’s reform process and ASEAN’s long road towards a regional community.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post on 5 October, 2013.