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Myanmar sending mixed signals to Asean

Publication Date : 03-09-2012


After Myanmar rejected the Asean chair's call for an urgent meeting on Rohingya while it granted access to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and UN agencies, other Asean colleagues were left befuddled - trying to understand the Nayphidaw's attitude towards them.

During the by-election in April, which brought about the near total victory for National League for Democracy, Myanmar shocked the sock of the Asean friends including the Asean Secretariat by inviting them to dispatch officials to join those from aboard to observe the "free and fair" polls. However, not all Asean members were happy about the move as they did not practice the kind of electoral process that engaged outside observers but they cooperated in the spirit of Asean.

In displaying further anachronistic attitude among the Asean ranks, Nayphidaw has just also lifted the blacklisted names of some 2000 individuals barring entry into the country for decades and earlier it ended media censorship law as a show of the country's readiness to open up the democratic space further.

In coming months, new laws related to press freedom, public broadcasting, non-governmental organisations and promotion of rule of law, accountability and transparency would be on the pipe-line.

While the jury is still out, the rapid reform process is under close scrutiny by other Asean friends, especially the so-called CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam). So far, the government's concerted efforts have dual objectives - ending all economic sanctions and decades of international isolation.

The first objective was partially fulfilled during the past several months when the West suspended or lifted partial sanctions pending further progress at home. Further liberalisation and democratic reforms would encourage the complete end of all economic discriminations. Second, after decades of isolation, Myanmar has returned to the embrace of international community, actively participating in myriads of activities. That much was clear. However, when it comes to its once troubled relations with Asean, Nayphidaw has sent mix signals to their colleagues.

For instance, Myanmar has maintained a distance with their Asean colleagues on South China Seas and Rohingya. Nayphidaw adopted a low profile on the controversial maritime disputes. On the human rights and democracy arena, however, it has been the opposite.

Within the Asean context, it has made a great leap forward. Indeed, several conservative Asean members are full of trepidation watching the unfolding events there - trying to figure out the contagion effects on the organisation in the long run. Myanmar's ongoing media reforms have upgraded the country from the bottom ranks of various international media freedom indexes ahead of over half of Asean members.

After the Phnom Penh incident, as diplomats in the region frequently referred to, questions were frequently asked how reliable is the future rotational chair, especially those from the new members. Asean was unable to issue the joint communique for the first time in its 45-year history.

Myanmar will assume the Asean chair in 2014. For years, the country fought vigorously to earn the rights to host the grouping's annual meeting. When the country decided to skip the chair in 2005 at the Asean Summit in Vientiane, it was done under the mounting peer pressure coupled with domestic constraints.

Until last November, the Asean leaders were still ambivalent about the 2014 chair that was the reason they chose to "support" the Myanmar's chair instead of "endorse" in their joint statement in Bali. In addition, the speed of US-Myanmar diplomatic normalisation also caught the grouping by surprise. Indeed, it was not wrong to say Asean was playing the catch-up game.

This anxiety still reigns deep in the Asean psyche. At a summit retreat in April in Phnom Penh, one Asean leader urged President Thein Sein to invite their colleagues to Nayphidaw to observe the country's progress towards reforms and its readiness to host series of Asean summit meetings in 2014. He felt that all the international limelight on Myanmar lacked the Asean dimension to it. Worse, news headlines of the days credited growing international recognition of Nayphidaw to their military-back government, even the once reviled leader such as Gen Than Shwe, which received some praises after decades of condemnation. However, the Asean chair recently decided to scuttle the plan to have a retreat in Myanmar after some delays, much to the chagrins of officials in Nayphidaw.

It is interesting to note the latent rivalry among the new members between Cambodia and Myanmar, which has intensified after the latter has embarked on democratisation and economic reform process - narratives that Phnom Penh, especially among the Cambodian political elite, used to monopolise following the UN-backed election in 1993.

There were incidents of bluffing between the two countries on the Asean schemes which were highly visible within the Asean circle. On August 10, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was taken aback after he received a letter from Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong calling for a special meeting on Rohingya without prior consultation. He said it was "a total surprise" by the move and quickly turned down the plan within hours after receiving the chair's invitation. Indonesia and Thailand, which backed the idea, later had to let go. A week later, Asean agreed to issue a joint statement on the situation in Rakhine state without a special meeting.

With different histories and political cultures, Cambodia and Myanmar exhibit their independent thinking and preponderances. Asean remembered well when the two countries were approached by Thailand ahead of the establishment of Asean in August 1967.

King Norodom Sihanouk dismissed Asean's invitation on grounds of his nation's well-known "permanent neutrality", while General Ne Win cited the country's "strict neutrality" as the main reason. Such deep-rooted values are being felt at present among the Asean members as they have been put on display and with some modifications in the case of Cambodia due to the new regional political landscape.

When Nayphidaw chairs Asean in 468 days, nobody knows whether the Thein Sein government would opt for the same principle with additional new shifts. Beginning July, the country is serving as the coordinating country of US-Asean relations. His government's stands and comments would be closely monitored. Series of liberal reforms in Myanmar have already rattled both new and as old members, especially those related to human rights protection and democratic promotion. Last November, a national commission on human rights was set up in Myanmar even though it was not yet function properly. More than the officials would like to admit, it has prompted Vietnam to take up a further challenge on human rights by applying for a membership in the UN Human Right Council.

Will Myanmar advocate amendments in the terms of reference (TOR) on Asean human rights practices and standards when it comes under review in 2014 or even go further encouraging Asean to come up with a convention on human rights? When the TOR was drafted in 2009, Myanmar followed hard-lined approach pursued by Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. At recent meetings in Myanmar on the drafting of Asean Declaration on Human Rights and the consultations with Asean-based civil groups in Kuala Lumpur, the Myanmarese delegation took up much softer approach on rights protection.

So far, despite the readiness of Asean and Asean Secretariat to assist Myanmar in present reform and Roginhya, the officials there have relied more on non-Asean sources. A pattern has emerged - if it has to do with Asean, the government preferred assistance from individual Asean members or without the collective Asean label.

The behaviour points to Myanmar's growing diplomatic independence in dealing with Asean and the boarder global community. Myanmar stopped the construction of Myitsone Dam in Kachin State after reports negative impacts on environment was another example. In other words, the country is slowly craving its own space within the body politics of Asean and beyond which may or may not coincide with the grouping's collective interests.


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