Issue Brief

Myanmar’s ASEAN Chairmanship: An Early Assessment

By Yun Sun
in Program

Today marks the release of the new issue brief: Myanmar’s ASEAN Chairmanship. The brief is part of Stimson’s “The Great Powers and the Changing Myanmar,” which has produced a series of issue briefs and events examining Myanmar’s growing relations with the international community since the beginning of its democratic reform process in 2011, including: Chinese Investment in Myanmar: What Lies Ahead? China, the United States and the Kachin Conflict; Myanmar in US-China Relations. The series continues with tomorrow’s event The Transformation of Myanmar Politics and Economy: A Discussion with Dr. Kurt Campbell.

Myanmar is more than halfway through its chairmanship of ASEAN, the first time the country has held that position since its acquisition of ASEAN membership in 1997. People have had varying expectations prior to Myanmar’s assumption of the chairmanship, from high hopes that Myanmar resume a regional leadership role through issues such as the South China Sea disputes, to questions whether Myanmar could meet the basic logistical challenges of all the ASEAN meetings. In reality, however, Myanmar has proven both schools wrong through pursuing and managing a progressive but moderate chairmanship role.

Myanmar has had a long and complex relationship with ASEAN. It was first invited to join the regional organization in 1967 after ASEAN’s inception, but rejected the invitation for fear of losing its own neutrality as Burma was the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. The following two decades of dissociation between Burma and ASEAN was followed by the country’s rising international isolation after the 1990 elections, which made ASEAN an appealing partner. After years of constructive engagement with Myanmar, ASEAN eventually accepted Myanmar as a formal member in 1997, a controversial decision at that time.

Even after its accession to ASEAN, Myanmar’s domestic politics and human rights record continued to complicate its relationships and status within ASEAN. In 2005, due to its human rights controversy and criticisms from the West, Myanmar was pressured to forfeit its turn at chairmanship under the institution’s rotational rules. Therefore, when Myanmar’s political and economic reform finally opened the door for the country to chair the organization in 2011, both Myanmar and ASEAN were ready to reintegrate the country into the regional community as a normal and equal member.

The theme Myanmar chose for its 2014 ASEAN chairmanship is “Moving Forward in Unity for a Peaceful and Prosperous Community.” This is closely associated with the regional organization’s schedule to establish ASEAN Community in 2015, and Myanmar has viewed the push to build a strong foundation for the ASEAN Community as its key task. By far, the assessment of progress toward the ASEAN Community under Myanmar’s guardianship has been largely positive. By August 2014, President Thein Sein claimed that “the founding of an ASEAN Community has nearly reached 80 per cent [of what needs to be done] and will be finished in 17 months’ time.”

It’s worth pointing out that there are observers who are suspicious about the feasibility of achieving the ASEAN Community before the end of 2015 given the technical difficulties in the implementation process. However, the question is generally focused on the organization’s capacity and readiness rather than Myanmar’s chairmanship role.

On top of navigating the turbulences in the year leading up to the establishment of ASEAN Community in 2015, the South China Sea disputes have presented a major challenge for Myanmar between safeguarding ASEAN solidarity and managing its relationship with China. While some had expected that Myanmar’s close ties with China would be an advantage in that regard, many worried that the deterioration of that relationship in recent years could precisely be the reason for worry.

Myanmar’s position on the South China Sea disputes is neutral for the simple reason that it is not a claimant state. Between its obligations as ASEAN chair and its relationship with China, Myanmar has pursued relatively modest goals on the South China Sea issue and has rather skillfully navigated between pushing for a collective ASEAN position and deflecting China’s frustration. In principle, Myanmar allows for full inclusion and discussion of the tensions in the South China Sea in ASEAN meetings, but treads carefully in all final documents about naming names and pointing fingers at any parties, including China. This strategy has won Myanmar the approval of most countries, including China and the United States.

During the first eight months of 2014, human rights issues (especially the Rohingya issue) and the logistical challenge associated with hosting the ASEAN meetings have been two primary concerns in assessing Myanmar’s performance as the chair of ASEAN. Based on the lessons learned from hosting the World Economic Forum and Southeast Asia Games in 2013 and equipped with technical and other assistance from other countries, Myanmar largely managed the logistical challenges to the participants’ satisfaction according to foreign officials, journalists and observers. The international criticism on Myanmar due to the Rohingya issue was less vocal at ASEAN despite its regional impact, largely due to ASEAN’s internal constraints.

Despite this discrepancy in expectations as well as earlier doubts about Myanmar’s ability to tackle the logistical challenges and domestic controversies, the assessments of Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship to date have been largely positive. While Myanmar still has a long way to go to be fully reintegrated into the region or to eventually play a leadership role, its first ASEAN chairmanship has laid a firm foundation for such a future. 

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