Civil Society raises concerns over Myanmar’s chairship of ASEAN in 2014

Two years after its controversial and some say ambiguous march towards reform and democratization, Myanmar now seeks to prove to the world that it is ready to take the spotlight in the international stage when it assumes the Chairship of ASEAN in 2014.

This is the first time that Myanmar assumes the post of Chair of ASEAN since its accession to the Southeast Asian regional organization in 1997. The country gave up its chance to lead ASEAN in 2006 for fear of backlash from Western governments which were critical of then military regime.

But is Myanmar ready for 2014? More importantly, is Myanmar capable of providing credible leadership for the 46-year old regional grouping?

Rights groups urge Myanmar to end violence first

Civil society and human rights groups questions Myanmar credibility to chair ASEAN in light of the continuing attacks against the Muslim minorities in the country. They say that Nay Pi Tyaw has failed to adequately address the Anti-Muslim violence that permeates throughout the country and has resulted in one of the worst refugee crises in the history of the region’s internal conflicts. Yet another round of fresh attacks occurred early this month in the town of Thandwe, in Rakhine State, where it all began more than a year ago.

A group of ASEAN-based civil society organizations in the region, the Solidarity for Asian Peoples Advocacy (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN, is calling on the Myanmar government to end the suffering of the Rohingya people by, first, recognizing their right to exist. SAPA is supporting civil society calls for the review of and amendments to the 1982 Citizenship Act. The group said that Myanmar government should ensure that all the peoples of Myanmar have equal rights and access to citizenship.

“”Hundreds of people already killed and thousands more have been displaced since the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya people started last June 2012. Government and security forces on the ground must do more to stop the massacres and forced evictions” Gois added.

A case of too much too soon?

At the time when the ASEAN is at a crucial stage in its quest for regional economic integration, many observers are concerned that Myanmar may be facing more challenges than it can competently address, notwithstanding its domestic troubles. More than the physical infrastructure and Nay Pi Tyaw’s capacity to play the gracious host, human rights groups are saying that Myanmar does not deserve to chair the ASEAN. They say that current reforms are not enough to sustain democratic and economic development.

In one ASEAN workshop for ethnic organisations conducted by the Southeast Asia Committee for Advocacy (SEACA) in Myanmar, the participants called on Myanmar government to find ways to address the Rohingya problem, stop the widespread land confiscation issue, and review large-scale industrial projects such as mining and dam constructions.

Meanwhile, foreign policy experts also doubt Nay Pi Tyaw’s political astuteness in dealing with pressing regional issues at the ASEAN level including the territorial disputes between China and some ASEAN members like Vietnam and the Philippines. The issue of a binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea will be inherited by Myanmar from last year’s chair Brunei Darussalam and will be a dominant topic when it chairs ASEAN next year.

China, which is the biggest investor in Myanmar, is expected to behave the way that it did during the 2011 Phnom Penh ASEAN Summit when it steered the discussion away from a binding agreement. It is interesting how Myanmar will handle it next year.

Civil Society pushes for real reforms and peoples participation

The civil society, both inside and outside Myanmar, is doing its part to ensure that the peoples’ concerns will not be glossed over at next year’s ASEAN meetings. SEACA believes that it is important that the peoples of Myanmar are involved in the ASEAN processes next year.

SEACA and its partners at the SAPA Working Group on ASEAN are organizing consultations and workshops about ASEAN, Human Rights, Civil Society Engagement and issues related to Myanmar’s chairship of the ASEAN in 2014.

Through the ASEAN workshops, SEACA aims to contribute to the education and sensitization of civil society in Myanmar to help them understand ASEAN and its history, as well as Myanmar’s thrusts and priorities as Chair of the ASEAN in 2014. It also seeks to make them aware about how they can engage ASEAN on various thematic issues including human rights, migration, peace and reconciliation, the environment, among others.

• SEACA is a Manila-based regional resource center focused on building the capacities of NGOs and peoples’ organizations to advocate with governments and intergovernmental organizations on peoples’ rights and policy proposals. Founded in 2000, SEACA has program and project partnerships in most countries in South East Asia–the Thai-Myanmar border, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, and Vietnam. SEACA is the Co-Convener of the SAPA Working Group on ASEAN