Wednesday, September 20, 2017

ASEAN and Myanmar – past, present and future

ASEAN marks its 50th anniversary today. Fifty years ago, five Southeast Asian nations decided to overcome their mutual suspicions and established a regional organisation to help buffer the impact of geopolitical tensions swirling around the region, and affecting each newly independent country’s survival. From these unpromising origins, Asean has slowly built up its “demonstration effect” in pursuing regional stability and economic progress, attracting five additional members.

Myanmar was one of those new members, joining ASEAN together with Laos on 23 July 1997 at ASEAN’s 30th anniversary.Myanmar’s milestones of ASEAN membership each decade are thus linked with those of ASEAN. The 20-year mark of Myanmar’s ASEAN membership also coincides with the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s contemporary history.

Myanmar’s tenth ASEAN anniversary in 2007 had little cause for celebration. That year, the interactions between ASEAN the Association and Myanmar as a member of that Association had reached their lowest point over the military regime’s crackdown on the Saffron Revolution. ASEAN issued its strongest statement on Myanmar, and Myanmar rejected ASEAN’s interest to have the United Nations Special Advisor brief the 13th ASEAN Summit on the situation in the country.

Celebrating August 8 as ASEAN Day in Myanmar – especially under the military regime – has also been a sensitive matter. August 8 marks another anniversary in Myanmar: the nation-wide democracy movement that was put down by in a bloody coup in 1988. This year, however, is different. The August 8, 1988 memories are no longer behind closed doors.

Anniversaries apart, Myanmar is still a relative newcomer in terms of leading or initiating regional actions. Decades of military rule had put Myanmar in a passive, reactive position in ASEAN affairs, including under the reform-oriented USDP administration.Even when Myanmar held the rotational ASEAN Chair in 2014, the expectations were more of maintaining the existing regional momentum than initiating something new. This is understandable, as Myanmar under a military regime was in no position to assert any leading role in ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy. Myanmar has thus undergone a longer beginning phase than others, but is now in a position to accelerate its participation.

ASEAN’s 50th anniversary this August 8 offers an opportunity to view how ASEAN’s and Myanmar’s past and future mesh. 

Southeast Asia today continues to be affected by competing power interests and shifting alignments, even within the strategic neutral space offered by ASEAN’s central convening role. ASEAN is increasingly hard put to uphold its regional unity of purpose. Myanmar’s foreign policy orientation can help ASEAN’s balancing act. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in her debut attendance at the 49th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July 2016, had shared Myanmar’s hard experience in dealing with “bullies”. When taking office in April 2016 as State Counsellor, Daw Suu had also affirmed continuation of the country’s neutralist and independent foreign policy. The larger regional and international role presumed by this policy had not been asserted fully in the past, but Myanmar today is in a position to do so. The country’s foreign policy has reached a full circle from General Aung San’s vision in 1947 where independent Burma, together with the countries then in French Indochina, as well as Thailand, Malaya and Indonesia, would work together for “mutual or multilateral interests of defence or economics” to survive a “dangerous” international environment.

On the economic front, ASEAN seeks to facilitate greater flows of trade in goods and services, skilled labour, and investment, to boost the region’s global competitiveness. Myanmar’s economic policy – since the initial opening up post-2011 up to the present – recognises the importance of dovetailing with the ASEAN Economic Community targets. Despite past isolation, Myanmar’s economy has felt some effects of being part of the regional economy. Although still reliant on intra-ASEAN trade, Myanmar’s share of the intra-regional trade has doubled from 1.1% in 2010 to 2.08% in 2015. China still has the larger economic footprint in the country, but Myanmar has seen more ASEAN neighbours among its top investors in recent years. Its share of the regional investment flows has also increased. The World Bank has projected Myanmar’s 2017 GDP growth rate to be 7%, placing it among the fastest growing economies in Asia. Righting all that has gone wrong from decades of economic mismanagement will take several years, but opening up through ASEAN offers the opportunity to shore up gaps in developmental or institutional capacity.

Myanmar’s economic catch-up is taking place at a time when socio-economic disparities within the country are affecting how people respond and adjust to new directions for development. This can be seen in Myanmar’s quest for peace and reconciliation across many of its administrative regions and states, while at the same time dealing with dominant interest groups, both internal and external. This is where ASEAN’s lofty aspirations for human rights, social justice and democracy usually find a test case in Myanmar. The military regime and the USDP government both found themselves on the receiving end of ASEAN’s queries on the situation in Myanmar, and had to provide ASEAN members with regular updates on developments, whether positive or negative. Through these experiences, Myanmar’s case set benchmarks for how ASEAN deals with difficult issues that require nuancing the non-interference principle. Myanmar is the sole ASEAN country that has been most “interfered” with but it has also provided useful, practicable examples of working for the common good. Myanmar’s willingness to work with ASEAN in dealing with the implications of the humanitarian situation after the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, and to discuss the more recent situation in Rakhine, illustrates that Myanmar does recognise where national interests and regional principles can find a compromise.

In the same way that ASEAN views its regional integration project as a “work-in-progress” in learning from past experiences for future success, so too does Myanmar’s ASEAN membership provide a platform for linking national interests with regional priorities to celebrate partnerships and minimize differences.


The author is Lead Researcher (Socio-Cultural) at the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, and Co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS. These are her personal views.