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Bagan, Myanmar – It was the first big meeting of Myanmar’s first year as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – a conclave of the region’s foreign ministers held last week in the temple-strewn surroundings of Bagan, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in north-central Myanmar.
“We will be discussing with our fellow ASEAN countries how to achieve the ASEAN community by 2015,” Myanmar Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin said before the meeting, referring to one of the big challenges facing Myanmar in its role as chair of the association.
The minister was speaking poolside at the lavish Aureum Palace Hotel, where a bridal suite-villa in the middle of Bagan’s temples goes for US$1,000 a night. The location was clearly chosen to impress. Bagan, a tourist draw where some 10,000 temples stood at the height of a 13th century Burmese kingdom, is certainly eye-catching at dusk when the red and brown pagodas merge, in the dust and haze, with the glowing sunset behind the Irrawaddy.
U Ye Htut, Myanmar’s deputy information minister and spokesman for President Thein Sein, told The Edge Review that Bagan was chosen as the host venue because of its surroundings. “We wanted to introduce our historical background to our ASEAN friends,” he said.
Myanmar’s recent history within ASEAN is less glorious, however, than that evoked by the temples of Bagan. In 2006, Myanmar had to stand down when a previous turn to take ASEAN’s rotating chair came around, largely because of concerns about its human rights record. At that time, the country’s military-led government was ruled with an iron fist by Senior-General Than Shwe.
But Than Shwe, Myanmar’s last military dictator, stepped down after Myanmar’s rigged November 2010 elections. A few months later, to widespread surprise and a still-lingering cynicism, a military-dominated but formally civilian government began implementing a series of reforms that by the end of 2011 saw Myanmar awarded the 2014 ASEAN chair.
And so it came to be that eight ASEAN foreign ministers – the gathering met minus their Thai and Cambodian counterparts, who stayed at home due to ongoing political turmoil in both countries – met to discuss the agenda for Myanmar’s yearlong chairmanship.
Myanmar’s year in the spotlight will culminate in a meeting later this year including the likes of China’s President Xi Jinping, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, India’s new leader, whoever that is following upcoming elections, and U.S. President Barack Obama – if he doesn’t cancel at the last minute as he did before last year’s summit in Brunei.
Myanmar had a couple of recent test runs for the challenge of hosting all the meetings and summits that chairing ASEAN entails – such as the Asian leg of the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in the capital Naypyidaw last June and the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games), a regional sports competition, held in cities around the country in December.
And ASEAN leaders are hopeful, perhaps too much so, that Myanmar’s chairmanship can help the bloc on its way to achieving a much-discussed ASEAN Economic Community by 2015, a year after Myanmar’s tenure at the helm ends. ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, speaking to reporters after the Bagan meeting ended, said, “As you know, up to now, ASEAN has been able to implement about 80 per cent of the economic blueprint.”
Unsaid, of course, is that rounding off on that final 20 per cent could be more difficult than what has been achieved so far. And Myanmar’s role as chair of the bloc could be undercut by ongoing tensions over maritime disputes in the South China Sea, with ASEAN members the Philippines and Vietnam at odds with China over competing claims. China is Myanmar’s biggest source of foreign investment. The ongoing disputes have often overshadowed ASEAN meetings in recent years.
So, is Myanmar up to the job? Moe Thuzar, a Burmese researcher at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs (ISEAS), told The Edge Review that “Myanmar is about as ready as it will ever be for this momentous task,” explaining that the experience gained from the WEF and the SEA Games “can be brought to bear” in managing the day-to-day aspects of chairing ASEAN.
As for the big picture, Moe Thuzar said she thinks that the 2012 debacle – when ASEAN chair Cambodia was seen as doing China’s bidding when it came to disagreements over the South China Sea – will prompt both this year’s chair and claimant China to be more circumspect. At the 2012 ASEAN leaders summit, the disagreements resulted in ASEAN failing for the first time ever to issue a joint communiqué following a summit.
“I think both Myanmar and China have taken lessons from the 2012 disarray in Phnom Penh seriously, and will thus try not to have a repeat of that scenario,” she said.
Myanmar appears to be doing its best not to take sides on any issues involving member countries, invoking the old ASEAN mantra of “non-interference.”
“One of the principles of ASEAN is non-interference in internal affairs of other countries,” said U Wunna Maung Lwin, Myanmar’s foreign minister, telling reporters at a press conference after the meeting that the ministers did not discuss the political protests in Cambodia and Thailand that kept their ministers from attending the gathering in Bagan.
But Myanmar has its own reasons to trumpet the principle of “non-interference.” U Ye Htut was adamant before the Bagan meeting that Myanmar’s ongoing sectarian violence, which has pitted majority Buddhists against minority Muslims, would not be discussed at all – not just in Bagan, but at any ASEAN meetings scheduled to come up during Myanmar’s year-long chairmanship.
That violence, ongoing since mid-2012, has increasingly been directed at some of the country’s estimated 5 million Muslims — particularly the Rohingya minority. Around 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, but are denied most basic citizenship rights. They are dismissed by the Myanmar government as “Bengalis,” in other words, immigrants from Bangladesh, and receive scant support from other Burmese. Even former democracy activists and ex-political prisoners are dismissive of their claims to equal treatment.
Thailand-based rights group Arakan Watch, using the old British colonial name for Rakhine State, said that in the run-up to last week’s ASEAN meeting, unknown numbers, perhaps dozens, of Rohingya were murdered by either civilians or police, or both, in the area. The government said no such killings took place, suggesting that the reports were possibly a cover-up for the disappearance of a policeman said to have been lynched by Rohingya.
In something of a throwback to the old Myanmar, state-controlled media went to the trouble of censuring The Associated Press, which now has an office in Yangon, as well as The Irrawaddy, an independent Yangon-based media group, for allegedly spreading “misinformation” by writing about the alleged massacre.Show