As Burma opens up after decades of isolation, its leaders say they are ready to assume a more active role in Southeast Asian affairs, as the country prepares to take over as chair of the region’s geopolitical and economic body in 2014.
In just over a year, Burma will become chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which it joined 17 years ago. Its ascendency to this position will acknowledge major changes in Burma, which passed up its chance to chair Asean seven years ago due to domestic turmoil under the former military regime.
“The reform measures in Myanmar are gaining momentum with the support of countries around the world,” Burmese Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham said last week in Rangoon, referring to the country by its official name. He was speaking during a forum with businesspeople and academics from other Asean member states. “In light of these achievements, Myanmar is prepared to take a greater responsibility in Asean and beyond.”
At the same forum, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi echoed the vice-president’s remarks by saying she would like to see her country assume a leading role in Asean, though she did not elaborate.
Of course, Burma is a very different place today than it was when it voluntarily passed up its chance to lead Asean in 2005. Since taking office in March last year, President Thein Sein has embarked on a platform of reform that has included the release of some political prisoners, an easing of media censorship, and collaboration with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party. The international community, in turn, has suspended many economic sanctions it had previously imposed against the Southeast Asian nation due to human rights violations under the former regime.
As reforms gain momentum, Burmese leaders are increasingly confident they can gain acceptance in Southeast Asia. Along with the upcoming Asean chairmanship, the country is set to host the 27th Southeast Asian Games next year in Rangoon, perhaps as a precursor to more international events in the future.
But for now, speculation is centering on what Burma will bring to Asean in the way of an agenda. One of the main questions is what theme the country will choose for the annual Asean summit in 2014. In the past, a chair country’s theme has been a reflection of its objectives and plans for the regional body.
Burmese ministry officials in the capital, Naypyidaw, have already started brainstorming ideas, as they study the themes and performances of other chairs since 2008, when Asean established its legal identity as an international organization.
That year, Singapore hosted the summit with the theme “One Asean at the Heart of Dynamic Asia,” reflecting the city-state’s desire for the 10-member group to gain prominence in the greater region. Although Asean was created in 1967, it did not become a legal entity until that summit in 2008, with the launch of the group’s Constitution, known as the Asean Charter.
Thailand began its 18-month chairmanship that year in July. Tasked with implementing the new constitution, leaders in Bangkok chose the theme “Asean Charter for Asean People,” and they proudly set up Asean’s Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.
When Vietnam took up the chair next, it opted for a simple theme: “Towards the Asean Community: From Vision to Action.” As it turned out, there was not much action at all, other than discussion of the South China Sea, the subject of territorial disputes among several member states. The issue was raised at the Asean Regional Forum by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, setting off a series of debates internationally about the maritime conflict.
Indonesia was more ambitious as the body’s chair last year. Its chosen theme, “Asean Community in a Global Community of Nations,” was the most far-reaching of the bloc’s history. The archipelago helped Asean strengthen its international profile by participating in the Group of Twenty (G20) summit with the world’s most economically advanced countries. Asean’s role was well noted during the meeting for its experience in financial management during the economic crisis of the 1990s.
The current Asean chair, Cambodia, chose the theme “One Community, One Destiny.” Cambodia has worked to narrow development gaps among the bloc’s old and new members, although its term as chair has been was marred by an inability to issue a joint statement at the group’s meeting of foreign ministers in July, a first in Asean’s 45-year history.
For next year’s summit, upcoming chair Brunei has already selected its focus: “Our People, Our Future Together.” Since joining Asean in 1984, just a week after the country’s independence, Brunei has focused on developing a more active role in the bloc.
Given this background, what would be an appropriate theme for Burma in 2014? Although the government has yet to decide, it could choose an agenda that highlights the idea of reform, reflecting the country’s changes under Thein Sein. Indeed, in his speech last week, the vice-president emphasized that “political reform serves as a good basis for the success of economic reforms.”
If that’s the case, and if Burma continues to open up in the coming months, an ideal theme might be “One Democratic Asean,” which would put a spotlight not only on Burma’s reforms, but also on the potential for positive development in the region as a whole.