Asean Envoy: ‘Burma was Misunderstood’

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 9 September 2015

A long road lies ahead for Burma after a general election set for Nov. 8, which is viewed as a crucial test of the sincerity of a reform effort rolled out since 2011. The Southeast Asian nation of more than 51 million people can expect to become more integrated with its neighbors as the Asean Economic Community (AEC) takes hold, increasing trade and travel between Burma, formerly a hermit state, and the region at large.

The Irrawaddy recently spoke with Aung Lin, director general of Asean affairs under Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about the country’s role in the AEC and what changes we should all be looking out for.

How has the implementation of visa exemptions for Asean countries progressed? As of now, for which countries do Burmese citizens need a travel visa, and when can we expect all countries to be exempt?

Right now, Burmese citizens only need a visa for Singapore and Malaysia. But Burma is already prepared to sign visa exemption deals with these two countries. We’ll be able to sign when they agree to sign it. At the moment, we can travel to seven Asean countries without having to obtain a travel visa.

The last visa exemption signed with Thailand is limited to airport arrivals. Will it eventually carry over to cross-border arrivals?

I’m not certain. Burmese travelers can currently enter Thailand through 33 airports without having to obtain a visa. Thai authorities have said that they will only accept these airport arrivals.

Have visa exemptions contributed to any important changes in and between Asean countries?

One of this year’s goals for the Asean community is to promote greater travel among member countries’ citizens. So we are working toward this end, and visa exemptions are a key part of this process.

Is Burma ready for the AEC, which is slated to come into effect by the end of this year?

Burma is ready. We, along with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, receive more concessions than some other Asean countries. While they have to enforce certain rules for tariffs, we don’t have to do this yet, probably not until 2018. Those in business circles will know more about it.

The Asean Open Sky policy took effect earlier this year. What benefits will this policy yield for Burma?

We are ready to implement the Asean Open Sky policy because there are both flag carriers and private airlines in our country. So when the policy takes shape, our airlines will be able to go forward and take advantage of new opportunities.

How was Burma affected by its role as Asean chair last year? Which sectors of the government and economy were most affected?

Burma took on this new role responsibly, and as a result, it has gained a better reputation in the international community. This is crucial. Now we have gained greater recognition not only from fellow Asean countries but also from dialogue partners. Looking back at statements on administration and religious issues that we issued during our tenure as Asean chair, we can tell that they were well received on a global scale. This is, of course, beneficial to us.

The European Union is now facing a migrant crisis. In recent months, Burma has also dealt with the complexities of migration. What is the question you are asked most frequently about this issue?  

‘Boat people’ [Ed. note: Rohingya refugees from Burma and migrants from Bangladesh] are called irregular migrants in Asean countries. At first, Burma was misunderstood [by the regional and international community] regarding this issue. But more recently, they have begun to recognize us as a country that is taking part in trying to resolve the migrant issue. We will approach this problem from this position in the future.

Will representatives of other Asean countries be allowed to visit Burma to observe the general election scheduled for Nov. 8?

The Union Election Commission (UEC) has announced that it will extend an invitation to foreign observers. It is ultimately up to the UEC to decide, but I think that observers from other Asean countries will be allowed to come to Burma for the election.