Myanmar: From isolation to leader

At the close of the East Asia Summit in Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar officially accepted the chairmanship of ASEAN 2013-2014. Myanmar’s leaders proved to the world that a state’s foreign policy can change an isolated country to an open and democratic country. The transition to a bloc leader requires some crucial measures on the part of Myanmar.

For a long time, its military junta neglected relations with big democratic powers such as the European Union (EU), the US and Canada, relying on the natural resources of its regional partners, particularly Singapore and Thailand and like-minded North Korea. After Gen. Ne Win seized power in a 1962 military coup, he imposed an austere, inward-looking socialism on the country.

One aim was staunch neutrality to prevent Myanmar from becoming a battleground in conflicts between China, the US and the former Soviet Union; and to avoid commercialization, pop music and prostitution that some nationalists in Southeast Asia sometimes blame on excessive foreign influence. From a western perspective, this is an isolationist orientation of foreign policy — indicated by low involvement in many issues and low-level diplomatic and commercial transactions.

Much of the discussion relating to Myanmar is about the response of western powers to Myanmar’s human rights record through various types of sanctions since the 1960s. With the little effects these sanctions had, there were significant changes in the sanction policies of western powers. But it is also important to look at how Myanmar directs its foreign policy.

Evidence shows isolationist policies have brought more harm than good. In the 1950s, Yangon, then known as Rangoon, was Southeast Asia’s aviation hub. But after the military seized power in 1962, civilian aviation entered a long decline. International isolation made it hard to deal directly with plane manufacturers, import equipment, train staff or finance infrastructure.

In the past, Myanmar was exporting tons of rice to many nations, including Indonesia. In 2011, Myanmar produced rice of around 800,000 tons, far lower than the rice production in Thailand, which amounted to 10 million tons per year. Storage problems and ill-maintained rural roads have undermined the agricultural sector. However, experts point out that Myanmar still has vital water and land resources to rebuild its agricultural sector.

Thein Sein, president since 2011, has brought significant change in Myanmar’s political and economic life. Aung San Suu Kyi is free, many new newspapers are published and arms ceasefires have started with some ethnic minorities. Thein Sein also significantly changed the course of Myanmar’s foreign policies. He met many world leaders promising sustainable and irreversible positive changes, opening Myanmar’s borders for foreign investments and most importantly, became the chairman of ASEAN for 2013-2014.

A transition from an isolationist country to bloc leader will be far from easy. As the chair of ASEAN, Myanmar will chair the ASEAN Summit, its Coordinating Council, Community Council, Sectoral Ministerial Bodies and Committee of the Permanent Representative. To carry out such an enormous task, the Myanmar government clearly needs to enhance its diplomatic capacity. The number of Myanmar diplomats posted with the Myanmar permanent representative to ASEAN should be increased significantly to cope with more than 1,600 meetings within ASEAN each year. Myanmar’s diplomats should also liaise with ASEAN bureaucrats working in the ASEAN Foundation, its Secretariat and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

ASEAN countries will implement the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) on Dec. 31, 2015 and Myanmar has a very important role in preparing the necessary mechanisms. One way to do this is through the successful implementation of Myanmar’s economic reform. Myanmar needs to achieve significant progress in infrastructure, market regulation and political stability. It can adopt the Master Plan of ASEAN Connectivity and its Infrastructure Development Fund to achieve those goals. This will be in line with the ASEAN Myanmar chairmanship slogan: “Moving forward in unity in a peaceful and prosperous community”.

The writer is a lecturer in international relations at the Christian University of Indonesia (UKI) and a researcher at the UKI’s Center for Security, Foreign Affairs and ASEAN Studies (CESFAS) and Marthinus Academy.