Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Myanmar-ASEAN ties at 20: still a work in progress

Myanmar, or Burma as it was then known, was in his mind when Thanat Khoman, Thailand’s foreign minister, thought about forming a new regional organisation in the mid-1960s. After its independence and brief democratic experiment, the resource-rich country was one of the leading nations in South-East Asia and a model to emulate.

ASEAN foreign ministers link hands in Manila. Photo - ASEAN SecretariatASEAN foreign ministers link hands in Manila. Photo - ASEAN Secretariat

At the time, Thanat had maintained close ties with the leaders of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. Thailand-Myanmar relations deteriorated after General Ne Win staged a coup in 1962 and subsequently ruled Myanmar for the next 26 years. In mid-1967 when a special envoy was dispatched from Bangkok to Yangon, then known as Rangoon, to persuade the country to join ASEAN, the answer was a negative one. Gen Ne Win viewed ASEAN as an imperialist tool that would run counter to Myanmar’s “non-aligned” foreign policy.

Though at the time Thanat mainly focused on the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia and their relations, he also had in mind Thailand’s Buddhist neighboring countries. Besides Myanmar, Thailand also made an overture to Cambodia under King Norodom Sihanouk to join ASEAN as a founding member. But it, too, was met with disdain. As key obstacles to being part of ASEAN, Sihanouk cited the country’s foreign policy of “permanent neutrality” and the desire to use French as the official language.

So, ASEAN was formed 50 years ago with only five countries. Except Thailand, they all were former colonies with a plethora of domestic challenges. After the first decade of existence, the rapport and cooperation among these five members reached a high comfort level that led to the first summit among themselves. The decision to establish a permanent secretariat in Jakarta came as a result. However, it was the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), which was signed at the end of the summit that would propel this young organisation forward to become one of the most successful regional organisations in the world, attracting more signatories. Today, there are 35 TAC signatories, of which 25 are non-ASEAN members.

It was one of the five TAC principles – non-interference in internal affairs – that was a magnet for Myanmar’s interest in, engagement with, and subsequently membership of ASEAN.

After the democratic uprising of August 1988, Myanmar was no longer an isolated socialist country, as it made constant global news headlines and drew harsh criticism over civil-military relations. After its May 1990 polls failed to gain recognition, Myanmar’s reputation reached an all-time low as the international community called for a return to democracy. Myriads of sanctions ensued.

After that, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, became a household name due to her struggle for freedom and democracy. Her additional status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991 transformed her into one of the world’s most famous democratic icons. Until the by election of April 2011, she was under house arrest, on and off, for nearly 14 years.

In retrospect, Vietnam’s joining ASEAN in July 1995 as its seventh member encouraged Myanmar to approach and contact ASEAN officially. Growing international pressure in response to its domestic development and the rise of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi persuaded its military leaders to seek support from ASEAN. The first logical step was to accede to the TAC at the ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting in Brunei Darussalam in July 1995. It must be noted here that once Myanmar acceded to the TAC, it immediately cited the principle of non-interference to urge Yangon-based ASEAN diplomats to cancel a scheduled meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It was a sour beginning of her initial contact with ASEAN. Back then, she was hoping that ASEAN would stand up and fight for her.

Instead, after Myanmar’s accession to ASEAN in 1997, ASEAN dutifully protected its new member at every opportunity. In fact, it defended Myanmar so much against Western countries’ boycotts and criticism that it caused so-called “Burmese fatigue” among its members, and as a result, ASEAN was constantly ridiculed by the US and EU. It was only when Myanmar adopted drastic political and economic reforms at the beginning of 2011 that ASEAN began to receive some acknowledgement and positive comments from abroad regarding its role in reforming the country.

This was a far cry from 2005. When Myanmar was tasked with chairing ASEAN that year, its military leaders quickly opted out, citing the unstable domestic situation as well as the lack of human resources and capabilities. At the Bali summit in 2012, ASEAN leaders agreed to Myanmar’s request to chair ASEAN in 2014. At the time, they expressed only “support” of Nay Pyi Taw’s request without making a full endorsement, fearing unknown political developments.

As it turned out, the 2014 ASEAN chair was a triumph for Myanmar’s diplomacy in pushing the country to the forefront of ASEAN. During its leadership, Myanmar displayed political finesse in maintaining ASEAN centrality as well as balancing all major powers while keeping them engaged with the group. Myanmar remained firm and committed to all ASEAN principles and protocols. Indeed, Nay Pyi Taw was fortunate as it had ample time to prepare for the ASEAN chair with much assistance from member countries and other friends.

Its ASEAN membership has now added to national pride and boosted its international standing. Its nascent democracy, people-centred policies and free media were the envy of other ASEAN members. Before the current government, Myanmar was among the top four countries in ASEAN in media freedom, behind Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Myanmar established a national human rights commission, the fifth member to do so. Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Brunei have yet to establish such a body, which is mandated by the ASEAN charter.

Myanmar’s engagement with ASEAN is still a work in progress. Certainly, as a democracy, its role within the group could be extraordinary. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s presence at last year’s foreign ministerial and summit meetings were lauded. Her overall positive response, despite two decades of ASEAN indifference, has won her over and now serves as a new yardstick for confidence-building among ASEAN leaders. Last December, she called a foreign ministerial retreat to brief her colleagues about developments in Rakhine State. That initiative has now allowed ASEAN leaders to discuss sensitive issues among themselves at any time, unlike in the past when such discussions were taboo.

As Myanmar-ASEAN relations enter their third decade, their future now largely depends on the current government’s attitude and confidence in the group. Myanmar is facing myriads of challenges – consolidating its democracy, making peace with ethnic groups and ensuring economic progress. Myanmar’s complex nation-building process is closely intertwined with the ongoing integration of the broader ASEAN Community.

In the months ahead, the situation in Rakhine State and ongoing peace process with ethnic groups will inevitably serve as a litmus test for the ability and capacity of Nay Pyi Taw to manage and resolve these quagmires, as well as defining the scope and substance of ASEAN’s future engagement.