Burma will become the chair of Asean in January next year for the first time in its history. The Asean chairmanship follows recent political reforms and the lifting of sanctions by the international community. Both Burmese and Western officials now see the country’s readiness for a greater leadership role in the region.
Burma’s acceptance of the 2014 Asean chairmanship in a ceremony in Brunei in October marked a symbolic moment for the country’s increased regional standing.
On the eve of this chairmanship, officials and observers alike are hopeful that despite some challenges, the country’s first chairmanship will be a success.
Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser Thein Sein, the president of Burma, also known as Myanmar, told VOA Khmer that the greatest significance of this chairmanship is political legitimacy for the Burmese regime.
“We can show our leadership in the region, and we can show that we are a responsible member to Asean,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a conference at American University in Washington in early December.
Burma joined Asean in 1997, along with Laos and one year ahead of Cambodia. But its isolation from the international community and image as a pariah state prevented it from hosting Asean in 2006.
Both Laos and Cambodia have previously chaired Asean. But Cambodia’s hopeful second chairmanship in 2012 was marred by a historic disagreement over the South China Sea, as a result of its close relationship with China and inability to manage increased Chinese tensions with some Asean members. Brunei’s chairmanship this year has been heralded as bringing Asean together again.
Like Cambodia and unlike Brunei, Burma is a non-claimant to the sea dispute.
But Ko Ko Hlaing said that unlike Cambodia, Burma is bigger and less dependent on China economically, while, conversely, China is more dependent on Burma’s strategic location.
Despite Burma’s close ties with its northern neighbor, it is not a “master and client relationship, and the Burmese government will avoid a repeat of what happened in Phnom Penh, he said. “We can take this position of the close relationship with China for the best interest of our region.”
While Burma is in a better position than Cambodia, navigating through increased US and Chinese geo-political rivalries may prove difficult nevertheless, said Christina Fink, a professor in international development studies at George Washington University and a long-time observer of Burma.
Despite all preparedness, recent escalating tensions in the region is cause for concern for the unexpected, she said.
“Myanmar is really kind of caught in between these big power players,” she said. “And it may be difficult for Myanmar to really be able to take leadership over how to handle these disputes within the framework of Asean meetings and the statements that they put out.”
The months leading into Burma’s chairmanship have seen increased tensions between China and Japan over a Chinese-declared air defense zone in the East China Sea.
Analysts are concerned those tensions will spread to the South China Sea, where tensions are already simmering between China and Asean members the Philippines and Vietnam.
During last week’s Japan-Asean anniversary summit in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged more loans to garner support from Southeast Asian leaders.
The effort followed a year of “blitz diplomacy” to all Asean countries that concluded with Abe’s trip to Cambodia and Laos, two countries seen as China’s closest allies in the region. The sea tensions also overshadowed US Vice President Joe Biden’s tour of Asia.
Scott Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told VOA Khmer recently that the US sees a “strong and unified Asean” as important for the region.
“We always like to see Asean working together, and we are very hopeful that under Myanmar’s chairmanship, that will happen,” he said.
The US will not impose its agendas on Asean and is generally satisfied with Burma’s recent reforms, he said.
That sentiment is echoed by Ko Ko Hlaing, who said Burma’s reforms have outpaced regional neighbors, raising hopes it can become one of the world’s “models of the democratic transition.”
Some analysts have indeed pointed to Burma’s unique circumstances as holding the promise of returning democratization to the top of Asean’s agenda.
However, human rights organizations say there are shortcomings in Burma’s transition, including ongoing rights abuses and violence against political dissidents, as well as Muslim and ethnic minorities.
Given how far the country has come, it deserves praise, Fink said. But Burma’s ambitions and the international community’s expectations should both be kept in check, she said, considering geopolitical realities and Burma’s own shortcomings.
“I don’t think that for their first chairmanship they need to aspire to really doing something transformative in Asean,” she said. “I think what is important for them is to keep things stable, keep things on track, bring people together in Asean. And if they can accomplish that they can be proud of that.”