Optimism is running high in Myanmar. After several decades under the military rule, Myanmar is now undertaking a series of political reforms. And so far, the move has been impressive.
Signs of democracy have recently emerged. Hundreds of political prisoners have been set free. Myanmar’s media has received more freedom, although it is still controlled by the government. President Thein Sein is allowing trade unions to form. Environmental and human rights organisations have sprung up all over the country. The military leaders released Myanmar’s most prominent opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest after 15 years. Suu Kyi has since re-entered the political scene. She is today working closely with the government in ensuring that more reforms will be materialised. People have come to believe that, with democratic reforms, their lives might be about to change for the better.
With the opening up of Myanmar, one question must be answered. How will the rapid change affect the dynamism in the ASEAN-Myanmar relations, and more importantly, ASEAN’s community building process?
Myanmar has been granted the chairmanship of ASEAN for 2014, 8 years after it voluntarily gave up its turn to chair the group. 2014 will be a crucial year for both Myanmar and ASEAN. For Myanmar, the second general election since 1990 will be just a year away (in 2015). Serving as ASEAN chair will render much needed political legitimacy to the regime in Naypyidaw. The government will be responsible for organising hundreds of ASEAN meetings during the period of its chairmanship. This will further expose Myanmar to the regional community, bring in more investments from ASEAN countries and their dialogue partners, and at the same time, allow the government to exercise its leadership by working closely with ASEAN members to reaffirm their obligations toward the community building in 2015. Therefore, an ASEAN chairmanship could become a fundamental factor in shaping Myanmar’s internal politics in favour of the ruling elite and to a certain extent influencing the election results.
Legitimacy has become immensely fundamental for the lifting of sanctions. It is true that the United States and some European nations have already abolished some of the sanctions against Myanmar. But more need to be done in terms of deepening democratic institutions inside the country before all sanctions can be lifted.
For Naypyidaw, the quickest route to earn that legitimacy from the international community is to exploit ASEAN platform to recreate Myanmar’s new persona which deserves to be legitimised. Myanmar has invested so much in its political reforms, even to the point of old generals deciding to step down. Serving as ASEAN chair will be useful. The position as a chair of ASEAN will provide Myanmar an excellent opportunity to cooperate with non-ASEAN partners, with whom Myanmar has been yearning for rapprochement in exchange for gaining their support and recognition. A sanctions-free Myanmar would benefit old generals who may have left the political scene but are still in control of big businesses in Myanmar.
As for ASEAN, offering Myanmar the chairmanship seems inevitable. And factually, Myanmar has to date remained the only member which has never served as a chair of ASEAN. In retrospect, one must admit that ASEAN has seemed to lack an effective and workable Myanmar policy. ASEAN’s interaction has been mostly responsive rather than proactive. Now with the ongoing democratisation in Myanmar, ASEAN immediately sees the changes as part of its own success of “acclimatising” Myanmar to fit in with developments in the region. In other words, this is a vindication of ASEAN’s past Myanmar policy. ASEAN is therefore quick to celebrate the political reforms in Myanmar. From this perspective, rewarding Myanmar for its effort to democratise was legitimate.
At first glance, the ASEAN chairmanship for Myanmar in 2014 appears to have been for the benefits of the region. On Myanmar’s part, the chairmanship a year before the materialisation of the community building was important both in tangible and symbolic terms. Tangibly, since Myanmar might gradually become the “new economic tiger” of the region, assigning a chairmanship for Myanmar seems rational. With all the available business opportunities and the political opening up, Myanmar could represent hope and possibility for ASEAN in an era of community-ness.
But it will be illusive to examine the Myanmar chairmanship of ASEAN only within the above context. It is possible to argue that the real missions of both Myanmar and ASEAN behind the chairmanship issue were indeed more about a self-fulfilment rather that anything meaningful to the development of regionalism. In reality, having Myanmar as a chair could challenge ASEAN’s effort to recreate its image as a serious organisation, particularly in the area of human rights promotion. At the end, the ASEAN chairmanship of Myanmar could be perceived as some kind of a solution to the legitimacy crisis for both Myanmar and ASEAN.
However, there must be hope in the wake of Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship. Since Myanmar will host the ASEAN summit anyway, it could use this opportunity to further boost the reconciliation process in the country and improve the livelihood of different ethnic minorities while showing them the possibility to integrate with the region. And finally, for ASEAN, its obligation to strengthen regionalism will not end in the year 2015 when the community will be properly formed. But ASEAN will need to look beyond 2015 and continue to demand from its members their commitment toward making a strong and relevant organisation, especially from Myanmar.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.