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Burma Seeking to be the Chairman of Asean in 2014

Originally appeared in The Nation

April 18, 2011

Can Burma have its cake and eat it too? The answer rests with Asean. Right after the new civilian government was installed at the end of March in Naypyidaw, one of the first important tasks President Thein Sein did was to submit a letter to the Asean Secretariat stating Burma’s readiness to take up the grouping’s chair in 2014.

At the 11th summit meeting in Vientiane in November 2004, under pressure from colleagues and the international community, Burma skipped a chance to take the chair, citing domestic conditions, especially the absence of national reconciliation and dialogue with all stakeholders. What Burma did not know at the time was resumption of the chairmanship was not automatic!

Last week, when the newly appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin briefed the Asean foreign minister in Bangkok on the latest political situation inside his country, he also asked for the grouping’s support to allow Burma to take the role of chairman. Burma wants Asean leaders to make a decision at the upcoming summit on May 7-8 in Jakarta so it will have sufficient time to prepare for the year-long chair in three years. However, several Asean countries still have reservations. Before Asean makes any decision on this matter, they have asked Naypyidaw to allow a delegate from Asean to visit the country to assess the latest situation and its readiness to take up the chair. Lwin could not decide and said he would take the matter back to the capital.

Since its admission in 1997, Burma has resisted repeated calls from Asean for national reconciliation, political reforms as well as hordes of other issues. As part of a family, Asean has quietly swallowed its pride and lived with its bruised reputation to render support for the brutal regime in Naypyidaw. At this juncture, Asean still holds the last bargaining chip, albeit very small, to salvage international standing of the group. At the Bangkok meeting, Singapore and Malaysia made it clear they wanted a credible Burma to chair Asean.

The new civilian government must show gratitude in concrete ways that the Asean support over all these years has been worth it. Furthermore, it must prove that it can initiate policy decisions independently from the strongman, General Than Shwe, through its new political process. A quick positive response to the grouping’s overture for a fact-finding mission should be forthcoming after the traditional New Year festival. Otherwise, it would bode further ill feeling with Asean as well as weaken the grouping’s call to end sanctions against Burma. Eventually, whatever decision the grouping takes will directly impact on a series of high-profile meetings and projects Asean has with its dialogue partners.

Obviously, given the current situation, nobody with the right mind would expect leaders from the US, the EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to go to Burma for a series of meetings – unless there were substantive changes in

people’s livelihoods and overall reforms, especially those related to democracy and human rights. As such, Burma has a small window with a limited timeframe to showcase its new government – that its parliament is neither subservient to the military’s machinations nor a sham.

Equally important, Naypyidaw needs to engage with the newly appointed US envoy on Burma, Derek Mitchell, who still awaits approval from the US Senate. Talks would serve as a barometer of Washington’s renewed engagement on Burma. With Mitchell, issues related to nuclear proliferation – and Burma’s with China and North Korea – would also be priorities. For the time being, it has to contend with the latest EU decision to renew sanctions for another year with an easing of travel and financial transactions for key Burmese civilian ministers. The EU, which is still divided over sanction issues, is willing to engage in further dialogue.

Essentially, the West is giving a trial run to Than Shwe’s “end game” if the new government plays it well. After all, Thein Sein has the right mix – perceived as the least corrupt leader with some administrative experience. His inaugural speech was well received with elements of reform and calls for good governance. However, with a pacemaker and advanced age, whatever he chooses will have a bearing on his country and his legacy.

A timely response to overtures from Asean and the West would greatly boost the civilian government’s credentials. If Thein Sein can seize the opportunity and deliver on key concerns such as the release of a large group of political prisoners – estimated at 2,100 – and come clean on nuclear proliferation, normalisation with the West and increased humanitarian assistance for health and education could come very fast this time. Both sides can no longer afford to misread each other’s intentions and enthusiasm.

Of late, within the Asean inner circle, serious discussions continue unabated as to the grouping’s future direction after the high-profile Indonesian chair this year. Will the US president come to the region for the East Asia Summit and the Asean-US leaders’ Meeting in the future, not to mention other summits? Even Indonesia, as the world’s third largest democracy and a proud chair, has difficulties with the White House negotiating the upcoming EAS summit timetables. The host wants it at the end of October, the White House has so far insisted on early November after the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Honolulu. Just imagine what the US attitude would be if other Asean countries took up the chair.

Cambodia and Brunei would come in as future Asean chairs in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Let’s be realistic – nobody expects Obama to go to Phnom Penh next year or for that matter, if he is re-elected, to Brunei. Should Asean give the green-light to Burma’s chair in 2014, the answer regarding the US is rather obvious. Furthermore, Laos has to acquiesce to Burma’s request because it anticipates holding the seat in the same year following alphabetical rotation. Given past experience and growing confidence of this land-locked nation, Laos may not be in the mood to delay taking up the top post.

If Asean wants to stay relevant and sustain its centrality in the overall scheme of the region and beyond, it has to convince Burma, after failing to do so repeatedly, that the well-being of the Asean community very much rests in the hands of Burmese leaders, including shadow junta leaders. Again, in case there is still doubt in the minds of Asean leaders in the next few weeks, then it would be better off to defer the chair further until the next round in 2021. That would be a historic moment – 24 years of waiting before holding a summit!

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This post is in: ASEAN

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