2014 marks the 47th anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN and it is the first time Myanmar has held the rotating presidency of ASEAN. Ever since March, 2011 when the new government came to power, the reform led by President U Thein Sein is proceeding silently, astonishing the whole world. From then on, Myanmar has strengthened the interaction and economic cooperation with the rest of the ASEAN countries. President U Thein Sein claimed in the interview with our reporter that Myanmar is actively involved in the regional affairs of ASEAN, hoping to play a more important role in the cooperation. The reform in Myanmar is referred to an “epic reform” by some scholars and the fruits of the reform is affirmed and supported by the ASEAN countries. It shows that the relation between Myanmar and ASEAN has unprecedentedly entered the “honeymoon”. However, the hardships they have gone through in the course of development are hardly known to the world.
Myanmar’s Accession to ASEAN: Twists and Turns
Myanmar is the 9th member state of ASEAN. Its accession to ASEAN is not a plain sailing, but with twists and turns. From the very beginning, Myanmar has won favor from the founders of ASEAN due to its special location. It is adjacent to China in the northeast, India and Bangladesh in the northwest, Laos and Thailand in the southeast, and Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in the southwest; that is to say, it has connected Southeast Asia, South Asia and China. Such advantageous geological location, coupled with the abundant natural resources, make Myanmar a hot land. However, for certain reasons, Myanmar isolated itself in the 1960s when ASEAN was still in its initial stage and was busy dealing its internal affairs. So, Myanmar’s accession to ASEAN was delayed time and again.
In 1990, then Thai Prime Minister Chartchai Chunhavan underpinned Thailand’s diplomatic policy in Southeast Asia as “turn the battlefield to markets”. In 1991, then Thai Foreign Minister Arsa Sarasin proposed the policy of “constructive engagement” with Myanmar. This new strategy has brought about unexpected benefits to Thai enterprises investing in Myanmar. In 1992 when General Than Shwe came to power, he strove to promote the economic development and alleviate domestic conflicts other than strengthening the control over the nation, which came with certain effects. Myanmar realized that there was no way out to be an “isolated force” and began to seek help from ASEAN, hoping to win acknowledgment and support from the world by acceding to ASEAN.
After the Cold War, economic globalization, trade and investment facilitation, and regional economic integration have become the trend of the world. In such a context, ASEAN, with only six member states at that time, wanted to attract more Southeast Asian countries so as to strengthen its power as a regional bloc. So, in 1994, a proposal was made to establish a community covering 10 Southeast Asian countries. Once again, ASEAN offered the olive branch to Myanmar, and made no concession on the issue despite the opposition from the western countries. It claimed that “it wanted to promote Myanmar’s democratization in the Asian way”. Then Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong also claimed that “isolating Myanmar will result in nothing”.
From 1990 to 1997, the Southeast Asian countries had maintained rapid economic growth and ASEAN had enjoyed more autonomous rights in regional affairs. Although the US announced in 1997 to impose tougher sanctions on Myanmar, forbidding further investment in Myanmar from the US enterprises, ASEAN member states like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam claimed that Myanmar’s accession to ASEAN is an internal affair which should be out of the control of the US. Hence, on July 23, 1997, Myanmar eventually joined ASEAN and started its friendly exchanges with other member states.
Brush past the Presidency
Myanmar has made a lot of breakthroughs after its accession to ASEAN. It has started mutual visits with other member states and presented the whole world a more open attitude. According to the alphabetical order, it was Myanmar’s turn to hold the rotating presidency of ASEAN in 2006. However, Myanmar gave up the opportunity for the sake of its national reconciliation and democratic reform, as the ASEAN foreign ministers claimed in their joint declaration. This demonstrated the resolution of the Myanmar government to solve its domestic problems. Some experts commented that the decision made complied with the overall interests of ASEAN.
It can be easily revealed that the relations and mutual trust between Myanmar and ASEAN have been continuously upgraded. Myanmar is an inseparable part of ASEAN and ASEAN has always devoted to restoring Myanmar’s international status. ASEAN has always maintained the “construction engagement” with Myanmar and adhered to the fundamental policy of “promote Myanmar’s reform rather than abandon or isolate it”. As then ASEAN Secretary General Surin stated that it is ASEAN who brings Myanmar closer to the western countries that have carried out decades of blockade to the country.
Myanmar and ASEAN are inseparable to each other. Without ASEAN, Myanmar will be in isolation; without Myanmar, ASEAN will be incomplete. If ASEAN wants to realize economic integration by 2015 as scheduled, it has to speed up internal economic integration, and it can not do without Myanmar.
Hence, in November, 2011, ASEAN decided to hand over the ASEAN rotating presidency to Myanmar at a critical time -- one year before the establishment of ASEAN Economic Community. It means that Myanmar will host the ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit as the rotating chair of ASEAN in 2014. Marty Natalegawa, Foreign Minister of then ASEAN chair Indonesia remarked that this move would further promote the opening-up of Myanmar, creating a “huge multiplier effect”. Some analysts claimed that it is because of the ASEAN leader’s clear and definite attitude towards Myanmar’s assumption of the rotating presidency that the US and EU promptly patched up the relations with Myanmar. So, within a short span of 6 months, Hillary and Obama paid their visits to Myanmar and met the country’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Thein Sein, which has, to a large extent, lifted the sanctions against Myanmar on trade, economy and politics.
With Great Honor Comes Great Challenge
That ASEAN passed the relay baton of rotating presidency to Myanmar is an affirmation on Myanmar domestic reconciliation and opening-up since 2011. It also symbolizes that Myanmar’s reform and opening up have reaped tangible achievements. The goal of ASEAN Community also rests with how Myanmar will act in 2014. Whether Myanmar could successfully assume the ASEAN rotating presidency and hold the ASEAN Summit is a test for both ASEAN and Myanmar.
Myanmar’s assumption of the rotating presidency is widely welcomed in the country, and regarded as an honor for the Myanmar people. It is not only conducive for Myanmar to be integrated into the international community, for example, to better participate in the ASEAN+3 cooperation, but also helpful in raising its national prestige. Myanmar is ready to carry out economic policies and establish external relations in a more open way. At the same time, it will shoulder more responsibilities in regional affairs and safeguarding the solidarity and development of ASEAN.
In view of the fact that 3/4 population in Myanmar find themselves in a predicament of insufficient power supply, imperfect telephone service, inadequate skilled civil servants and shortage of most basic infrastructure like computers, Myanmar faces both problems and hope. After assuming the rotating presidency, Myanmar is going to hold over 1,100 meetings in 2014, which might be a great challenge.
However, Myanmar claimed that it has been fully prepared. As President U Thein Sein revealed, Myanmar is determined to win support from other ASEAN member states as well as its dialogue partners to give full play to its role as the chair of ASEAN. He said that Myanmar is confident in establishing the ASEAN Community by 2015, and the Myanmar people should strive to build Myanmar into a modern and developed country and realize the goal of ASEAN Community at the scheduled time.
In Nay Pyi Taw, the capital city of Myanmar, hotels and restaurants spring up like mushrooms after rain. The city has successfully held the Southeast Asian Games in December, 2013, which was a wonderful rehearsal of the ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit to be held in 2014. When the time comes, leaders from 18 countries will gather in Nay Pyi Taw, the 7-year-old new capital of Myanmar which is still under construction. And the whole world is looking forward to a successful 2014 for Nai Pyi Taw.