Guest Column

Naypyidaw Sending Mixed Signals to Asean

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 3 September 2012

After Burma rejected the Asean chair’s call for an urgent meeting on Rohingya while it granted access to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and UN agencies, other Asean colleagues were left befuddled—trying to understand Naypyidaw’s attitude towards them.

During the by-election in April, which brought about a near-total victory for the National League for Democracy, Burma shocked its Asean friends (including the Asean Secretariat) by inviting them to dispatch officials to join those from aboard in observing the country’s “free and fair” polls.

Not all Asean members were happy about the move as they did not practice the kind of electoral process that engaged outside observers. Nonetheless, they cooperated in the spirit of Asean.

In displaying further anachronistic attitude among the Asean ranks, Naypyidaw has also just lifted the blacklisted names of some 2,000 individuals barred entry into the country for decades; earlier it ended media censorship law as a show of the country’s readiness to open up further democratic space.

In the coming months, new laws related to press freedom, public broadcasting, non-governmental organizations, promotion of the rule of law, accountability and transparency are in the pipeline.

While the jury is still out, the rapid reform process is under close scrutiny by several of the bloc’s member states, especially the so-called CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam).

So far, the government’s concerted efforts have dual objectives: ending all economic sanctions and decades of international isolation. The first objective was partially fulfilled during the past several months when the West suspended or lifted partial sanctions pending further progress at home. Further liberalization and democratic reforms would encourage the complete end of all economic discriminations. Second, after decades of isolation, Burma has returned to the embrace of the international community, actively participating in a myriad of activities.

That much was clear. However, when it comes to its once troubled relations with Asean, Naypyidaw has sent mix signals to their colleagues. For instance, Burma has maintained a distance with their Asean colleagues on the South China Sea dispute and the Rohingya issue.

While Naypyidaw adopted a low profile on the controversial maritime disputes, in the human rights and democracy arena, however, it has been the opposite. Within the Asean context, it has made a great leap forward.

Indeed, several conservative Asean members are full of trepidation watching the unfolding events there—trying to figure out the contagion effects on the organization in the long run.

Burma’s ongoing media reforms have upgraded the country from the bottom ranks of various international media freedom indexes ahead of over half of its Asean colleagues.

Following the Phnom Penh incident, questions were frequently asked about how reliable the future rotational chair will be, especially from the bloc’s new members.

Asean was unable to issue a joint communiqué for the the first time in its 45-year history.

Burma will assume the Asean chair in 2014. For years, the country fought vigorously to earn the rights to host the grouping’s annual meeting. When the country decided to skip the chair in 2005 at the Asean Summit in Vientiane, it was done under mounting peer pressure coupled with domestic constraints.

Until last November, Asean’s leaders were still ambivalent about the 2014 chair; that was the reason they chose to “support” Burma’s chairmanship rather than “endorse” their joint statement in Bali. In addition, the speed of US-Burma diplomatic normalization also caught the grouping by surprise. Indeed, it was not wrong to say Asean was playing a catch-up game.

This anxiety still reigns deep in the Asean psyche. At a summit retreat in April in Phnom Penh, one Asean leader urged President Thein Sein to invite their colleagues to Naypyidaw to observe the country’s progress towards reforms and its readiness to host series of Asean summit meetings in 2014. He felt that all the international limelight on Burma lacked an Asean dimension.

Worse, news headlines at the time credited the growing international recognition of Naypyidaw to their military-backed government, even the once reviled leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe who received some praise after decades of condemnation.

However, the Asean chair recently decided to scuttle the plan to have a retreat in Burma after some delays, much to the chagrin of officials in the Burmese capital.

It is interesting to note the latent rivalry among the new members such as Cambodia and Burma, which has intensified after the latter had embarked on a democratization and economic reform process—narratives that Phnom Penh, especially among the Cambodian political elite, used to monopolize following the UN-backed election in 1993.

There were incidents of bluffing between the two countries, which were highly visible within the Asean circle. On Aug. 10, Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was taken aback after he received a letter from Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong calling for a special meeting on the Rohingya without prior consultation. He said it was “a total surprise” and quickly turned down the plan within hours after receiving the chair’s invitation. Indonesia and Thailand, which initially supported the idea, later backed down. A week later, Asean agreed to issue a joint statement on the situation in Arakan State without calling a special meeting.

With different histories and political cultures, Cambodia and Burma exhibit their independent thinking and preponderances. Asean remembered well when the two countries were approached by Thailand ahead of the establishment of Asean in August 1967. King Norodom Sihanouk dismissed Asean’s invitation on grounds of his nation’s well-known “permanent neutrality,” while Gen Ne Win cited the country’s “strict neutrality” as the main reason.

Such deep-rooted values are being felt at present among the Asean members as they have been put on display, with some modifications in the case of Cambodia due to the new regional political landscape.

When Naypyidaw chairs Asean in 2014, nobody knows whether the Thein Sein government will opt for the same principle with additional new shifts. Beginning July, the country is serving as the coordinating country of US-Asean relations. His government’s stance and comments will be closely monitored.

A series of liberal reforms in Burma have already rattled both new and old members, especially those related to human rights protection and democratic promotion.

Last November, a national commission on human rights was set up in Burma even though it was not yet functioning properly. More than the officials would like to admit, it has prompted Vietnam to take up a further challenge on human rights by applying for a membership in the UN Human Rights Council.

Will Burma advocate amendments in the terms of reference (TOR) on Asean human rights practices and standards when it comes under review in 2014 or even go further in encouraging Asean to come up with a convention on human rights?

When the TOR was drafted in 2009, Burma followed the hardline approach pursued by Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. At recent meetings in Burma on the drafting of the Asean Declaration on Human Rights and the consultations with Asean-based civil groups in Kuala Lumpur, the Burmese delegation took up a much softer approach on rights protection.

So far, despite the readiness of Asean and its Secretariat to assist Burma in its present reform process and the Rohingya crisis, officials there have relied more on non-Asean sources. A pattern has emerged—if it has to do with Asean, the government prefers assistance from individual Asean members or that without the collective Asean label.

The behavior points to Burma’s growing diplomatic independence in dealing with Asean and the broader global community. The Burmese government’s halt of the construction of the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State after reports of negative impacts on the environment was another example.

In other words, the country is slowly creating its own space within the body politics of Asean—which may or may not coincide with the grouping’s collective interests.

This article was originally published in The Nation on Sept. 3. Some parts have been edited for clarity. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.