Thursday, September 21, 2017

Myanmar’s emerging role in ASEAN


IT has been 20 years since Myanmar became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Before 1996, Myanmar was an outsider weighing its decision to join the regional grouping.

In July 1996, Myanmar took the big leap and expressed intention to join ASEAN. It became an official member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, the largest security forum in Asia, which includes non-ASEAN members such as Russia, the EU, China, North and South Korea and others.

A year later, on July 23, 1997, ASEAN approved Myanmar’s membership, despite objections from the international community, which considered Myanmar a rogue country governed by a military junta accused of human rights violations.

Then opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest two years earlier, expressed hope that ASEAN would eventually serve as a counterbalance to the iron grip of the junta in her country.

In 2006, Myanmar was supposed to chair the annual ASEAN summit and related meetings for the first time, but eventually decided to forego the opportunity because of unrelenting international criticism over its dismal human rights records.

But four years later, in 2010, Myanmar’s junta initiated unprecedented democratic reforms, and a new political landscape began to emerge, proving right ASEAN’s faith in the country to transform at its own pace.

In 2014, Myanmar assumed the ASEAN chairmanship and successfully hosted its annual summit and related meetings in its new political capital Nay Pyi Taw, ushering in a new chapter in its engagement with the regional group.

The “new chapter” of engagement reached a new high in 2015, when the ruling junta peacefully relinquished government leadership to the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, which won a majority in all parliaments at the regional and national levels in a free and fair election.

There is no doubt Myanmar is one of the shining achievements of ASEAN’s unrelenting and active engagement with its member countries, as well as with its partners. Myanmar is an ASEAN success story.

In June last year, Singapore Foreign Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as state counsellor and foreign minister in the democratically elected Myanmar government, to play a greater role in ASEAN.

Lee expressed confidence that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s high profile in the international community could further advance ASEAN’s goals and vision.

U Kyaw Lin Oo, an ASEAN analyst, said there might be some doubt about the level of interest of the ASEAN community in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the role of Myanmar in ASEAN.

The ASEAN community went the extra mile to support her fight for human rights and democracy, U Kyaw Lin Oo said, and the vision and relations of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with ASEAN became important subjects of discussion.

‘’Since she and her party took the reins of government in Myanmar, nothing much has happened,” U Kyaw Lin Oo said.

However, he added, Myanmar has not been able to get much traction on regional initiatives, such as upholding human rights, and the prospects of the new government may not be appreciated within ASEAN.

“I think the new government does not understand clearly what ASEAN is as a body,” he said.

During the ASEAN summits in Laos, which for the very first time Daw Aung San Suu Kyi attended as Myanmar state counsellor, she contributed her thoughts and vision of her government – a people-centred foreign policy as well as ASEAN policy. The ASEAN leaders welcomed and appreciated her contribution.

Since that time, the state counsellor revealed that she is trying to learn about ASEAN and its functions as a new leader and does not yet have a specific agenda to discuss with ASEAN.

In the first public appearance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after taking over the government in April 2016, she said that Myanmar would be actively involved within ASEAN and beyond.

‘’This has always been our aim: that our country should always be the ground for fostering better relations, not just with our neighbours but with the rest of the world,” she said.

The Myanmar Times emailed questions to the ASEAN affairs section of the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Myanmar about the country’s attitude toward ASEAN under the new government but received no reply.

“She earned the respect of ASEAN leaders. She pointed out that if ASEAN wants to be a global leader, it needs unity. The influence of any powerful country can affect ASEAN unity,” U Myint Thu, director general of ASEAN affairs at the ministry, told The Myanmar Times in February.

ASEAN is marking its 50th anniversary during the 50th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and Post-Ministerial Conferences in Manila, Philippines. However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not attending the meetings and could be looking more to the international community rather than the regional body.

U Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, said that Myanmar is still a newcomer in ASEAN, and in order to take a leadership role in regional initiatives, you need more time to study them.

‘’The contribution and involvement of Myanmar in ASEAN is still limited, focusing on democracy and human rights issues,” he said, adding that the new government of Myanmar is looking more toward the West and European communities, than hogging the limelight in ASEAN. Myanmar has taken more of a passive, reactive position in the economic sector of ASEAN.

“One can say that Myanmar has been quite successful for the past 20 years because it has signed and hosted necessary bodies like the ASEAN People Forum,” said U Aung Myo Min.

However, he added, it is quite different to lead ASEAN itself with its variety of human rights and democracy situations.

According to the ASEAN affairs analysts, both Myanmar and ASEAN benefit from the peace that has been created and maintained in the region.

ASEAN believes that change should come from within. Therefore, it is very important for the NLD to lead by example by fulfilling its democratic transformation. Myanmar’s role is needed to find solutions, especially with the situation in Rakhine State.

ASEAN leaders have warned about the rise of extremism in the region for the past two or three years, and that what happens in one country can affect other countries in the region.

Ms. Yuyun Wahyuningrum, senior adviser on ASEAN and human rights, said the ‘success story’ between Myanmar and ASEAN is not yet over and there are many things still to be done.

She added that Myanmar should be able to use ASEAN to increase its bargaining power when engaging in trade or other sectors in the international community. ASEAN negotiating as one body is much better than each member going it alone.

“A dialogue requires openness from both sides for cooperation to be able to flow. It doesn’t help if only one party opens up to a dialogue,” Ms Yuyun said.

She said that a number of countries are fast losing their patience, so Myanmar needs to quickly align itself with the ASEAN Community-building process.

Daw Moe Thuzar, a fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the NLD-led government has a more-or-less clean slate to show, so Myanmar after 20 years as an ASEAN member can assert itself in ASEAN discussions, even on topics that are focused on Myanmar’s role in addressing trans-boundary issues and challenges.

She said Myanmar could take the lead in discussing Rakhine State. While it is domestic in nature, Myanmar could convene a special meeting with its ASEAN counterparts to discuss the implications of trans-boundary issues.

“This is one such indication that, in the coming decade, we can expect to see more of a role for Myanmar in ASEAN,” Daw Mor Thuzar said.