Burma's Normalization Passes SE Asia, Not West

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/26/2011 12:46:00 PM
What do we do with Myanmar? It's long been a serious headache in Southeast Asia since it joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997 together with Laos and Vietnam. For all its fraught history under military rule, there is no denying that it is geographically part of Southeast Asia. Unlike in the EU where aspirants are subject to human rights criteria and in the Eurozone with its macroeconomic criteria (which may be cheated anyway--look at Greece), there is a greater tolerance of political-economic diversity in ASEAN almost by necessity.

There has been much interest in the West as of late regarding Myanmar's latest attempt under Thein Sein to remove its global pariah status, shunned as it is by Western trade and investment. Not only are IMF representatives in Burma for the first time in a long time to consider how to mitigate its dual currency system, but the US has already sent an envoy twice to look over ongoing changes there. It should be noted that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is a more divisive figure in Southeast Asia than elsewhere. In particular, her leading the drive towards applying sanctions has caused no small amount of debate: Has doing so left more Burmese worse off than otherwise? Also, have these sanctions only made the military junta even more isolated and paranoid? (ASEAN has never been keen on sanctions.)
Some dissidents and Western investors want Ms. Suu Kyi to end her longstanding support for sanctions, which block most U.S. companies from doing business here. The rules have been imposed in stages since the late 1990s—largely at her behest—to punish a regime accused of widespread human-rights violations.

U.S. officials have offered cautious support for the recent changes in Myanmar, which include plans to allow peaceful protests and the organization of labor unions, as well as steps to unblock websites such as the BBC and YouTube. But like Ms. Suu Kyi, U.S. officials have stopped short of advocating lifting sanctions until more progress is seen.
It is in this regard where we need to revisit ASEAN. Myanmar is still smarting from being effectively forced to vacate its turn as the rotating chair of the organization in 2006. Although the newer member countries Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam favoured its chairmanship, original members including the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore did not over...possible image problems for the regional grouping. However, Myanmar is betting that prisoner release, more humane treatment of minorities, economic reform and so on will help ASEAN become more comfortable with the idea of Burma chairing ASEAN in 2014.

Importantly, ASEAN's erstwhile diplomatic bigwigs from G-20 member Indonesia are scheduled to conduct an inspection tour of Myanmar at the end of October--particularly Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. His voice will likely be the deciding one in determining whether Myanmar gets the nod for 2014 chairmanship during the 14-19 November 2011 summit in Bali, Indonesia:
Optimism is growing around Myanmar’s bid to chair ASEAN in 2014 as a crucial visit by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Mr Marty Natalegawa looms later this month. With political changes gaining pace, analysts and politicians said last week Myanmar was looking increasingly likely to get the nod for 2014. A final decision will be made at the ASEAN summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November and Mr Natalegawa’s recommendation is likely to be an important factor.
In some ways Indonesia is a model for Myanmar in its transition from military-dominated rule to, shall we say, a more conventional market democracy. It was not so long ago that Indonesia underwent fairly traumatic changes after the fall of Suharto in 1998, and it probably has something to share on how to make a similar transition possible in Myanmar. From the Irrawaddy:
Burma can learn from both the successes and failures of Indonesia during its transition from military rule to democracy, members of Indonesia’s parliament told Burmese presidential advisers for legal and political affairs during a meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia on Sept 27.

According to notes from the meeting obtained by The Irrawaddy, the Indonesian MPs told the Burmese delegation that one of the first steps in Indonesia's own transition to democracy—which began in 1998 after the fall of former dictator Suharto—was making significant constitutional amendments to protect human rights and provide a framework for economic and political reforms.

The Indonesian legislators acknowledged that their country made a mistake by failing to bring to justice those responsible for gross violations of human rights during the Suharto regime and then letting them hold positions in the new government. As a consequence, the Indonesian MPs said, such persons remain obstacles to resolving conflicts, particularly with respect to the management of the country's natural resources.
There is no small amount of regional prestige in chairing ASEAN. With its growing global clout, ASEAN also provides legitimacy to its putative head. The hopeful aspect is that 2014 when Myanmar wishes to chair the association is still a few years away, leaving it with little room in the meantime to return to its previous ways lest this prize be wrested from it (again). As the post title says, Myanmar is looking to ASEAN as a vehicle for legitimizing itself first within the region and then to the wider world instead of making a direct bid to normalize relations elsewhere. More so now than before, ASEAN does matter to its members as well as to the world community.