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Burma begins its first international political role in decades this week as host of Southeast Asia’s regional bloc, with experts warning against “over-inflated” expectations as the group grapples with territorial disputes and ambitious economic integration plans.
The country will host foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for an informal meeting on Friday in the ancient capital Bagan – the first major gathering of the group under Burma’s debut year-long stewardship.
The long-isolated country has won international praise and the removal of most Western sanctions for wide-ranging reforms since the end of junta rule nearly three years ago, raising the promise of an investment boom.
The former pariah state has freed political prisoners, welcomed opposition parties into parliament and launched economic reforms.
Fresh from hosting the World Economic Forum on East Asia and Southeast Asian Games in the sprawling remote capital Naypyidaw last year, the country is confident that it can meet the diplomatic and logistical challenge of hosting the regional bloc, despite its creaking infrastructure.
“Burma is ready for the ASEAN chairmanship,” said Than Htut, a senior official at the national planning ministry.
“ASEAN is a rising star in the world’s politics and economy. We hope that our chairmanship will support that,” he said, adding that businesses had donated a fleet of BMW cars and limousines to ferry delegates to meetings.
Sean Turnell, associate professor at Australia’s Macquarie University, said that while Burma has previously been seen as a drain on the bloc, it now “promises to make a positive contribution”.
“The biggest danger to Burma in being ASEAN chair might be over-inflated expectations,” he told AFP, adding that the country’s successful management of the Southeast Asian Games could raise unrealistic hopes of its ability to tackle strategically substantive challenges.
“The international community didn’t expect much from [previous chairs] Laos, Cambodia etc, so these countries quite easily exceeded expectations. This might not be the case for Burma,” he said.
In 2006, Burma was forced to renounce the ASEAN rotating presidency in the face of criticism of its rights record and the then-ruling junta’s failure to shift to democracy.
Burma’s eagerness to take the chair this year – jumping in ahead of Laos – is a signal the government wants to “step up the process of opening up to the region and outside world”, said Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer.
He said Burma would largely follow a pre-set agenda and would not be “out of its depth” at the helm.
President Thein Sein said in October the theme of Burma’s chairmanship would be “moving forward in unity in a peaceful and prosperous community”.
The regional grouping has a number of complex issues on the table, including territorial spats between Beijing and several ASEAN members – particularly the Philippines and Vietnam – over the South China Sea, as well as ambitious economic integration plans.
ASEAN, a region of 600 million people, wants to establish a common market and manufacturing base to better compete with China and India, but there are growing doubts about whether it will meet a 2015 target.
Burma has generated a flurry of economic interest since reforms began in 2011, with investors eyeing its pivotal strategic location, vast natural resources and a long-isolated population of some 60 million potential consumers.
“Down the track, Burma will greatly benefit from integration,” said Turnell, adding that investors remain cautious despite a number of reforms.
Relations with neighbouring China, a longtime ally, are likely to put Burma in a delicate position when tackling the South China Sea.
Cambodia, an ally of Beijing, caused consternation in 2012 when it was ASEAN head by refusing to take China to task over its increasingly assertive claims to the potentially energy-rich waters.
“Burmese diplomats privately say they will reflect the ASEAN consensus on the South China Sea while expecting strong pressure from China on this issue,” Thayer told AFP, adding that crunch decisions were likely to fall outside the chairmanship.
Burma will also host the East Asia Summit in 2014, which brings ASEAN members together with the United States, China and Russia.
The chairmanship should be an “opportunity for the government to improve its human rights situation and show it is serious about making the transition from military to genuinely civilian rule,” said Human Rights Watch researcher David Mathieson, adding it still had “some hard convincing to do”.
Optimism over recent political prisoner releases has been tempered by the continuing arrest of activists and ongoing religious tension in the nation, where the military still holds a crucial position in parliament.