Burma Takes Long-Awaited Asean Chair, But Can It Cope?

By James Pomfret 11 October 2013

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei — In a room festooned with purple and yellow flowers, Burma took a long-coveted role on Thursday as chairman of Asean, the regional grouping of Southeast Asia.

But in a country where three-quarters of the population lack access to electricity and basic telephone services are patchy, the job holds as many problems as promise for a semi-civilian government that emerged from 49 years of oppressive military rule two years ago to surprise the world with sweeping reforms.

Burma may struggle to cope with the onslaught of meetings—a total of 1,100—it will host next year when the role of chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations formally begins.

Many government institutions face shortages of skilled civil servants. And many government buildings lack basic infrastructure, such as computers.

“It won’t be perfect, but it won’t be a disaster,” said Tin Maung Maung Than, a Burmese scholar and senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

President Thein Sein’s democratic reforms have won praise but he has also been criticized for failing to stem religious violence that has killed at least 240 people and displaced 140,000, most of them Muslims, since June 2012 in the Buddhist-majority country.

“Burma can’t even get its own human rights house in order, how can it be expected to lead regionally on human rights?” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch.

Apartheid-like policies in Burma’s western Arakan State have segregated Buddhists from stateless Rohingya Muslims, leaving many of them in primitive camps with little hope of resettlement. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma by boat, washing ashore in Thailand and Malaysia.

Serial human rights abuses, however, haven’t stopped other Southeast Asian countries from chairing ASEAN. Last year’s host, Cambodia, has tolerated little dissent since its authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, consolidated power in a 1997 coup.

‘It Will Not Be a Struggle’

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the chairmanship was a “good opportunity” for Burma to build on its socio-economic progress and democratic transition.

“We all agree and we’re also concerned that there are still many more challenges, particularly communal violence, which they have been experiencing, in Rakhine [Arakan] State involving Rohingya minority groups,” he said.

“We have been working very hard…to encourage Myanmar authorities to have inclusive dialogue and conciliatory policies.”

Burma officials insist they are ready to take the role of chairman. Hotels are sprouting in the once-secretive capital Naypyidaw, a sprawling city built from scratch just seven years ago.

Naypyidaw hosts the Southeast Asia (SEA) Games in December—a rehearsal for next year’s Asean meetings that include an annual East Asia summit bringing together leaders from 18 nations including China, Japan and the United States, along with an army of inquisitive journalists.

“We’ve been preparing for this chairmanship for quite a while,” Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told Reuters on the sidelines of this year’s East Asia Summit in Brunei. “It will not be a struggle for us.”

Presidential Advisor Nay Zin Lat added, “We know we’ll have to host about 1,100 meetings during the term, and preparations are being made accordingly.”

Burma was first due to take Asean’s rotating chairmanship in 2006, but was passed over amid fears Western countries would boycott meetings held there.

The country was then a global byword for backwardness and tyranny, with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and the United States and European Union imposing strict economic and political sanctions.

Most sanctions are now history, and after her release in 2010, Suu Kyi became a member of Burma’s fledgling Parliament. The role of Asean chairman is the crowning achievement for a government eager to distance itself from the bad old days.

At the ceremony, Thein Sein accepted a golden gavel to symbolize the job. Later, there was a screening of a short film portraying Burma as a “paradise” of rich resources, golden pagodas and ethnic diversity, as a narrator declared, “Now is Myanmar’s time in the sun.”

The upcoming SEA Games in Naypyidaw have prompted comparisons to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which marked post-war Japan’s re-emergence on the world stage.

A central problem, however, could be weak infrastructure. This year’s Asean summit in Brunei had 500 staff to handle more than 1,000 journalists—all of whom could place enormous strains on Burma’s notoriously slow Internet.

Initial fears of a dearth of hotel rooms, however, have all but vanished in a din of construction in Naypyidaw, which now has 53 hotels boasting 4,286 rooms, more than double the number needed for the current summit in Brunei.