The Nation



Rehearsal over, Myanmar must now step onto global stage

Tough times ahead for the 2014 leader of Asean as the region prepares for economic integration and seeks to appease rival world powers

Myanmar dropped the curtain on the 27th South East Asian Games on Sunday and claimed victory, whatever the medals table said. The country failed to overhaul Thailand as overall winners, but its symbolic triumph as host was far more important. Handed to the former pariah state as a reward for ongoing reforms, the Games presented a crucial test of Myanmar's move toward becoming an open society and its integration into the international community.

Concerns had been high that the formerly military-run country would be unable to prevent its simmering political conflicts from boiling over and marring the international tournament.

Of course it had some help in organising the event - notably from its Asean neighbours and China. But it was Myanmar's ability to run the Games that guaranteed their success, not the outside help.

However, the tournament was merely a rehearsal for the year ahead, when Myanmar faces a steeper task chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Like the SEA Games, the Asean helm was a reward for serious efforts toward reform and national reconciliation. Myanmar had for years been passed over for the rotating position at the head of Asean due to domestic problems after the military's crackdown on the opposition and the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate.

Despite appearances, Asean's leaders must do more than merely organise meetings among regional and global partners. The Asean chair has to play an active role in dealing with all kinds of issues that will affect the region throughout 2014 and into the future, using leadership and negotiating skills.

Next year is crucial for the regional bloc as its members prepare for integration as a single economic entity. Before the launch of the Asean Economic Community, scheduled for the end of 2015, its countries must complete a slew of tasks to increase economic liberalisation and physical connectivity. The difficulty of forging a real sense of community across 10 disparate countries should not be underestimated. Fostering the required political, security, social and cultural integration is a mammoth task.

Making it more difficult is Asean's status as a focus of both regional and international rivalries. Major global powerhouses China and the United States are competing politically, economically and militarily to create a new world order. Asean is feeling the pressure of this seismic shift, with members taking different attitudes toward the two superpowers. Some regard Washington as a necessary balance against Beijing's regional influence, while others see China as an ally that guarantees economic development. Some Asean members are locked in disputes over territory with China.

Meanwhile, China and Japan, both of which have friendly relations with Asean members, are at loggerheads over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Each is looking for Asean to support its claim, but the group cannot risk taking sides and thereby alienating either of these important regional partners.

The heavy responsibility of dealing with this tangled web of relations is one of the first tasks facing the Asean chair. Myanmar must use the lessons it has learned from domestic reform to lead the region through difficult a difficult environment in the year ahead.

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