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Mid-term review of Myanmar's Asean chair

With 135 days remaining as the current Asean chair, Myanmar has proved it can do the job effectively and protect Asean's interests. Nay Pyi Taw's 17-year wait was worthwhile for the challenges. The grouping's longest communique

True to its slogan "Moving forward in unity to a peaceful and prosperous community" — also the longest Asean chair's slogan — Myanmar has managed to fulfil most of its pledges, barring domestic issues. It reflected the host's confidence and experience in engagements with fellow Asean colleagues and the international community. Myanmar also has the benefit of being a latecomer to immerse itself in the knowledge of Asean, including trial and error, as well as relevant training to improve the chair's capacities and capabilities.

Most importantly, unlike the previous two chairs, Myanmar has a long view of history and knows exactly how to place Asean, as well as itself, in the regional and global scheme of things. That has helped to explain why the chair was able to patiently form a consensus for a stronger Asean voice vis-a-vis China on the South China Sea and other international issues. Vietnam also displayed a similar attitude when it chaired Asean meetings.

As a non-claimant, Myanmar received applause in its handling of the South China Sea disputes, especially from the Philippines and Vietnam, which have found Asean wanting for years in stronger views and support from its family members. The first two statements on the South China Sea put out in January and May, showed the chair's diplomatic finesse and brinksmanship.

This year's joint communique on regional and international issues was more encompassing than all previous statements. That said, it also showed the conservatism enshrined in Myanmar's leadership not to discriminate on any issue — a play-safe mode. This time, besides the maritime disputes, Asean led the ARF discussion on Middle East crises in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. New issues including the downing of Malaysian flight MH17, the crisis in Ukraine and transition in Afghanistan were also mentioned.

Myanmar's earlier hope to have all nuclear powers sign up to the second protocol of the Asean Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone was dashed. Before its reform in 2011 and normalisation of ties with the US, nuclear proliferation was a key problem due to its surreptitious nature. Since then, Nay Pyi Taw has tried very hard to come clean. Now it is incumbent on the next chair, Malaysia, to pursue the grouping’s long-term goal as one of the earlier security architecture plans to rid the region of nuclear weapons.

As host, with the above-mentioned achievement, Myanmar could have been the "game changer" in Asean on both domestic and international fronts. But it was not to be. The host remains hyper-sensitive on issues related to the Rohingya and communal conflict, which was conspicuously absent from the Asean agenda even though they impacted on other Asean neighbours. In May, the chair issued a joint statement on the political situation in Thailand with its consent on behalf of the Asean leaders. As Myanmar had a high level of trust in its friends, it hoped these issues could be discussed and if possible find common solutions. In October 2012, Myanmar rejected upfront Cambodia's call for a special foreign ministerial meeting on the Rohingya crisis.

Myanmar's confidence came late. After cyclone Nargis' destruction of the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, Myanmar's authorities and nascent civil groups learned first-hand from the relentless regional and international humanitarian efforts to help them all they could. The intense three-year engagement with relief operations helped Myanmar officials and local partners get a better grasp of the dynamic of international cooperation, especially with Asean-led operation.

No doubt, experience as the Asean chair will provide further impetus to ongoing all-around reforms. Albeit the harsh Western criticism of rights violations and media gags, Asean has continued to support Myanmar without fail. There is a good reason for that. Currently, Myanmar's standing on the Asean Community's blueprint is pretty good, accomplishing more progress pertaining to the political and security pillar than most Asean members.

Two examples must be highlighted. First, Myanmar was the fifth Asean member to establish a National Commission for Human Rights, joining Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The commission has so far received more than 6,000 cases of violations, mainly related to land eviction. Only around 200 plus of the less sensitive cases were investigated. Despite its chequered record of protecting human rights, the commission continues its work. More can be done. In addition, the host did not shy away from engagement with civil and grass root groups and showed a clear understanding of taboo subjects.

Second, the Myanmar Peace Centre, established in 2002, is a unique institute within the Asean context as a platform for dialogue and national reconciliation. Its experience in dealing with the ongoing peace process would be extremely useful for the young Asean Institute of Peace and Reconciliation. As of now, Asean has implemented roughly 124 out of 147 measures in the political and security pillar but it has not taken up any post-conflict peacekeeping and peace-building initiatives at all — something for which Myanmar has a niche.

It remains to be seen how the chair would like to pull or push forward its domestic agenda. Obviously, the upcoming election in 2015 and the planned nationwide ceasefire remain pointers which have already zapped most of the energy from the authorities concerned. Myanmar's image beyond 2015 and its place in Asean will be much more clear.


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