Myanmar takes helm of ASEAN while sectarian violence persists

Myanmar last week took the baton from the Sultan of Brunei, assuming the rotating chair in 2014 of Asia’s most important regional organization, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In December the country otherwise known as Burma will also host the Southeast Asia Games, a coming-out party for a nation emerging from a half-century of military repression.

These are stunning signs of Myanmar’s rapid rehabilitation from international pariah status following the slaughter of monks during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. Nonetheless, Myanmar remains convulsed by communal violence and anti-Muslim pogroms, generating risks for ASEAN’s unity and reputation.

ASEAN was established in 1967 and, with its headquarters in Jakarta, it has since become the fulcrum of regionalization, expanding membership, initiating dialogues and packing the annual schedule with numerous conferences that have promoted diplomacy in a region coping with various challenges to peace and stability.

Myanmar joined ASEAN 16 years ago, and was long regarded as the grouping’s black sheep because of its repressive military rule and extensive human-rights abuses. Since 2011, however, there has been significant progress in realizing democracy and easing draconian restrictions on political freedoms, but the surge in Buddhist-Muslim mayhem since last summer is casting a cloud over the entire transition.

So now Myanmar is in the hot seat as ASEAN continues to deal with a festering row with China over disputed territories in the South China Sea.

There was an organizational crisis in 2012 when the ASEAN member countries’ foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué addressing this divisive problem. It appeared that China managed to influence Cambodia, then ASEAN’s chair, to block a consensus, undercutting organizational integrity and unity.

But now the row has gone from bad to worse, as this year the Philippines upped the ante by taking its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea to United Nations arbitration. Meanwhile, Indonesia publically announced that it, too, has a similar dispute with China; while Vietnam ordered submarines to bolster its naval presence (and claims).

Through all that, Brunei proved to be a deft chair of ASEAN’s 23rd summit, managing as it did to revive ASEAN cohesiveness. But there may be more turbulence ahead.

Myanmar’s relations with China have soured over the past year since police injured monks and other protesters at the site of a controversial mining project where villagers have been displaced. Land grabs have drawn local ire throughout Myanmar, with China also feeling the heat as it has focused on resource-extraction ventures involving shady deals with the Myanmar junta and its cronies that ignore local interests.

However, Beijing now recognizes that it mishandled relations with Myanmar, as arrogant behavior and corrupt practices have stoked long-standing anti-Chinese sentiments. For instance, when Myanmar hosted a World Economic Forum in June 2013, it attracted few Chinese participants. In the corridors, President Thein Sein’s handlers did nothing to dispel rumors about his overall unhappiness with the nation’s largest investor.

Although China recently withdrew from bidding for a major telecommunications contract, its controversial mining projects have, for now, weathered local protests. And with a gas pipeline it financed having just started operations, it remains very much in the picture.

As Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi pointedly said, “We have to get along with the neighboring country, whether we like it or not.”

Nonetheless, handing the chairman’s gavel to President Thein Sein is a high-risk gamble for ASEAN — but not only because of the China conundrum.

Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s newly constructed seat of government, will host a series of ASEAN meetings, and the East Asia Summit, bringing together member nations along with representatives from China, Japan, India, South Korea, the United States and Russia — so stretching its diplomatic and logistical capacity.

Suddenly, Myanmar will be catapulted from isolation to prime time, and can expect even more international media scrutiny. Any outbreaks of sectarian violence during such high-profile events would seriously damage its reputation, with ramifications for its ambitious reform agenda and overall harmony within ASEAN.

The government has not done enough to rein in communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims and follow through on President Thein Sein’s “zero-tolerance” rhetoric. Reports about recent attacks on Muslim villages indicate that security forces continue to stand by while witnessing acts of violence and arson. More than 140,000 Muslim residents of Myanmar are now languishing in refugee camps after being burned out of their homes by angry crowds of militant Buddhists.

This situation will challenge ASEAN unity and its principle of non-interference. Muslim-majority members Malaysia and Indonesia will expect substantive progress, as this is a potentially destabilizing transnational issue.

Anti-Muslim attacks in western Myanmar initially targeted ethnic Rohingya, not recognized as legitimate citizens by the Myanmar government, but the sectarian violence has spread to others parts of the country and involves other ethnic minorities whose citizenship rights are unquestioned.

The violence targeting Muslims, and the consequent outflow of Rohingya refugees to Thailand and Malaysia, is raising tensions and inflaming Muslim communities in the region. This has led to anti-Buddhist reprisals in Malaysia, Indonesia and India and a foiled bomb attack on Myanmar’s embassy in Jakarta.

Scaremongering militant monks preaching violence and calling for boycotts of Muslim shops find a receptive audience for their hate speech evident in brisk DVD sales, while social and print media fan inter-communal antagonism. The government also seems more zealous about prosecuting Muslims involved in such incidents even though their communities are in most cases the victims of attacks.

Surely more can be done to bring the perpetrators and instigators to justice. Quelling outbreaks requires improved police riot training and equipment, but religious and community leaders must also step up to challenge extremists and dampen tensions.

Tackling sectarian violence will be a litmus test for ASEAN’s low-key approach to promoting human rights, as well as a major challenge for Myanmar’s political and religious leaders. Frustrations have mounted over the usual problems associated with crushing poverty and growing inequalities, as people attempt to challenge land grabs and corruption while seeking improvement in livelihoods, health services, education and the rule of law.

This is the easily ignited kindling of popular unrest. There are no quick or easy solutions to these endemic problems, but as the International Crisis Group concludes in a recent assessment, “Myanmar cannot afford to become hostage to intolerance and bigotry.”

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.