Can Myanmar Be a Game Changer in Asean?

BANGKOK — As the new chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Myanmar has to face challenges emanating both from home and from the grouping’s agenda. How the chair handles these issues—both in terms of agenda-setting and narratives—will determine the status of Myanmar within the region and broader international community in the future.

Myanmar can draw best practices from Asean to maximize the benefit it derives from its long-awaited chairmanship, skipped in 2005. To see what is possible, it need only look at the example of Indonesia. Before it democratized in 1998, Indonesia represented the lowest denominator within the grouping. No Asean agreements or measures could move ahead without a nod from its largest member. Now, 15 years later, Indonesia has taken the lead in pushing for changes to bring Asean to new heights. Jakarta has successfully raised the grouping’s international profile and energized overall engagement with major powers. New ideas and frameworks proposed by Indonesia have already strengthened the rule-based organization to ensure compliance by its members.

Indonesia’s efforts have been possible because of the country’s steady democratic development and openness—with vibrant media and civil society groups—as well as its willingness to discuss its own internal issues, something long considered taboo by Asean norms. During the East Timor crisis of 2000, for instance, Jakarta asked Asean to contribute to the formation of an international peace-keeping force. Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia responded to the request as individual members. It was the first time that Asean had washed its dirty linen in public.

Similarly, Myanmar’s ethnic issues and its religious and communal conflicts are no longer hidden from outside scrutiny. Over the past two years, local and international media have reported directly from affected areas inside the country. Therefore, these problems feature high on the Asean agenda due to their repercussions on neighboring countries and Asean as a whole. But as the current chair, Naypyitaw could choose to suppress discussion of these issues, as one of the prerogatives of its new position is the power to determine the agendas of all Asean meetings from now until December 2014.

If the past is any indicator, the new chair may choose to avoid mentioning, much less discussing, these issues completely. However, it could also use this unique opportunity to address them in constructive ways. For example, instead of shying away from the Rohingya refugee crisis, which has both domestic and regional dimensions, Myanmar could voluntarily report on it to its colleagues. It could also provide an update on the progress of the country’s national dialogue and reconciliation efforts with various ethnic minorities. At the Asean ministerial meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan in July, Indonesia won praise for unilaterally reporting on its human rights situation. Thailand and the Philippines will do the same at the meeting next year.

By openly raising sensitive issues, the chair could establish new best practices in a way that would have regional implications. Such updates and dialogues would help increase confidence among Asean members in their ability to discuss sensitive issues. While this wouldn’t necessarily lead to regional solutions to all problems, as there are still constraints on how Asean members can work together on certain issues, such courage would engender goodwill toward Myanmar and result in a better understanding of the country’s domestic dynamics.

In the past, the Asean chair has called for special meetings to deal with particular crises, such as outbreaks of avian flu and SARS or the aftermath of Japan’s tsunami and nuclear dilemma. These actions normally came about when Asean faced a terrible crisis and wanted to respond collectively and quickly. But even in the absence of immediate threats, Myanmar could work toward enhancing interactions among Asean members in a way that would enable them to contemplate preventive and forward-looking measures.

Doing so would complement the substantive progress on economic and political reforms that have taken place inside Myanmar over the past two years. Democratic reforms and broader public and media participation in debates on national policy have had positive outcomes on Myanmar’s integration with the global community. Increased engagement between the Asean decision makers and civil society groups would raise the status of the new Asean chair.

Myanmar can become the region’s game changer due to the greater interests paid to Asean by major dialogue partners, including the US, China, Japan and India. These powers are wooing individual Asean members to join their spheres of influence. As the chair, Naypyitaw has to make sure that Asean stays united and focused. A divided Asean would weaken the grouping, which is something it cannot afford. Any discord at this juncture would undermine the grouping’s bargaining power in the global arena.

Besides domestic issues with regional implications, issues related to traditional and non-traditional security would also be high on the chair’s agenda. Nuclear non-proliferation is certainly one of them. After long-standing condemnation of its nuclear ambitions and its relations with North Korea over missile technology, Myanmar could come clean and subsequently inform Asean that it will lobby the nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China) to sign the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty during its chairmanship. If Myanmar succeeded in doing this, its legacy as Asean chair would be a long-lasting and positive one.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Thai journalist.

This story first appeared in the December 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.