A throng of enthusiastic young journalists ambushed their country’s leader upon his arrival at the hotel. This has been a familiar sight at Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summits since 1976, when the inaugural one was held in Bali, Indonesia.
The only difference this time was that this was Phnom Penh, and the ravenous reporters were trying to get comments from the Burmese president. Scenes at the hotel were chaotic—over a dozen journalists crowded into the lobby to get President Thein Sein on the record. Welcome to the new Burma.
Burmese journalists are youthful and dynamic. They are learning their Ps and Qs as well as Asean secrets, such as how best to report complex issues, plus cultural sensitivities. They must discover how to decipher bloc jargon as well as diplomatic chit-chat.
What important issues should they focus on? Was it bilateral ties between Asean and Burma or common bloc issues? How to read between the lines of all available summit documents? Nyein Nyein Naing, the executive editor of 7Day News Journal, had to figure out why the Rohingya situation was not listed under “regional and international issues” as the summit’s spokesman had earlier indicated.
Instead, the issue was mentioned in one paragraph under the heading of “promotion and protection of the rights of women, children and other vulnerable groups” in order to cover the humanitarian challenges in Arakan (Rakhine) State.
Three decades ago, Thai, Malaysian and Singaporean journalists made up the largest contingent of media covering annual Asean meetings. At the time, Asean was a single-issue organization—the Cambodian conflict. So it was not that difficult to follow—just grabbing the joint communiqués at the end was sufficient.
When Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia after Christmas 1978, the major headlines were on how to end the occupation. From 1979 until 1993, all Asean meetings were about the grouping’s joint efforts with foreign friends and foes in the international fora, especially the annual UN General Assembly, to dislodge the foreign occupation.
Today, when Asean leaders meet, they bring along myriad issues and viewpoints—both economic and security—that they wish to share. Apart from the dispute in the South China Sea, which is being widely reported in the press, there are dozens of other issues to which the media has paid less attention—food security, climate change, environment protection and public healthcare, to name but a few.
Another big story was the launching of a regional free trade area, known as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which will eventually become the world’s largest trading bloc, bigger than the US-initiated Trans Pacific Partnership, which already has nine countries including four Asean members—Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Brunei.
Prior to 2011, the Asean summit engaged just six external leaders from Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Now, the global guestlist has been expanded to eight including the US and Russia, who joined the East Asia Summit last year.
Before 2008, Asean held just one annual summit, now it has two—in April among themselves and in November with dialogue partners. At last week’s event, dozens of bilateral meetings were held on the sidelines. This has become a prominent feature of the summit.
U Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, will appear every Wednesday.