Nothing gained or lost for ASEAN chair

The summit will be attended not only by leaders of ASEAN’s 10 member countries, but also by other world leaders such as US President Barrack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

By Kyaw Lin Oo   |   Monday, 10 November 2014

The second ASEAN Summit for 2014 will be held in Nay Pyi Taw from November 12 to 13.

The summit will be attended not only by leaders of ASEAN’s 10 member countries, but also by other world leaders such as US President Barrack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

As the host country, Myanmar is therefore getting more attention from the international community and the media compared with previous ASEAN summits held in other countries.

Myanmar was ambitious at the beginning of the year when it took over the ASEAN chair from Brunei Darussalam.

The government proudly said it would mediate between China and the four ASEAN member countries with which it has territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

However, the negotiations did not go well following the first ASEAN Summit in May.

Regarding the South China Sea, China wanted to draft individual codes of conduct with each country, while the four ASEAN countries proposed a single code of conduct between China on one side and the regional group on the other.

No compromise was reached, and Myanmar suffered its first diplomatic failure in ASEAN politics.

The international community and civil society organisations also expected Myanmar to take a leading role in amending terms of reference for the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

However, Myanmar has failed to work hard to persuade its fellow ASEAN countries about the importance of improving the human rights mechanism for the region. Nothing has changed and no improvements have been made for the protection and promotion of human rights for the citizens of ASEAN.

Myanmar will therefore not get any applause for its role in leading ASEAN during the year of its chairship.

On the other hand, it will not be criticised by other ASEAN countries for its handling of the South China Sea debacle or ASEAN human rights issues. Myanmar has maintained its neutrality in all issues related to the region, and when Malaysia takes over the chair next year, it will face the same unsolved problems.

The main topics under discussion at this week’s ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit will be economic in nature rather than dealing with political or security issues.

Plans call for the ASEAN Economic Community to be established in 2015 with six member countries. The four less-developed countries in the regional grouping – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam – are due to join in 2018.

ASEAN member countries are expecting more investment and economic aid from Japan, China and South Korea to ensure the successful implementation of the economic community. But Chinese investment remains controversial in some ASEAN countries, including Vietnam and Myanmar, because public sentiment regarding Chinese development projects is not very positive.

Apart from the economic interests of the region, world leaders who attend this week’s summits will likely bring up Myanmar’s political and economic reforms during bilateral talks with President U Thein Sein in Nay Pyi Taw.

The reform process is currently stalled due to various unforeseen challenges to U Thein Sein’s administration. One of the biggest obstacles is finalising the peace process, through which the government and armed ethnic groups hope to forge a ceasefire agreement.

U Thein Sein might want to show other world leaders the bright side of the national peace process, but this will be difficult: Recent weeks have seen new fighting between the Tatmadaw and some ethnic groups, while the army is under scrutiny for killing a freelance journalist in Mon State last month.

It will be challenging for U Thein Sein to face world leaders who have been expecting too much from Myanmar’s political reform process.

That’s not to say that there have been no positive developments in the lead-up to the summits. Several months have passed with no new outbreaks of sectarian violence, which will allow U Thein Sein’s government to say that it has been effective in controlling these clashes.

At the same time, however, the government remains reluctant to accept the Rohingya as one of the officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar. The international community and the United Nations will continue pressuring the government on this issue even after its period as the ASEAN chair ends.

Overall, Myanmar has successfully passed its responsibility as ASEAN chair without experiencing any major turbulence. Some other countries in the region were not so lucky, such as Thailand, which faced plenty of political instability while chairing ASEAN in 2009-2010.

However, Myanmar has not gained any credit for taking a leading role in transforming ASEAN into a people-centred grouping. It has been business as usual for Myanmar and the other member countries in 2014. Nothing gained, nothing lost.