Why ASEAN chairmanship is important for Burma

Published on May 11, 2011

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Manila Times – May 11, 2011 

At the 18th summit (7-8 May 2011) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta, Burma made a request to hold the 2014 ASEAN chairmanship. Whether Burma deserves it or not is what many observers debate about. Why is it important for the Burmese government?

The chairmanship position, which is rotated among ASEAN member states every year, is currently held by Indonesia. Cambodia is set to chair in 2012, which will be followed by Brunei in 2013. The Burmese president Thein Sein (former military leader and prime minister under the State Peace and Development Council government) sought the support of other ASEAN leaders.

Burma was forced to skip the 2006 chairmanship because of pressure from within ASEAN and from the Western democracies. While the United States and the European Union threatened to boycott ASEAN meetings if Burma had assumed the chair role, some ASEAN members (Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) feared that it would damage the image of ASEAN internationally.

The debate surrounding Burma’s chairmanship stems from the question of human rights. The idea of creating the ASEAN human rights body was first deliberated in 1993 by the then foreign ministers of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand during the 26th ASEAN ministerial meeting in Singapore. However, the rights body was formally established only when the ASEAN Charter was adopted in 2007, and ratified by all members in 2008.

Burma was given ASEAN observer status in 1996 and full membership in 1997. Because of its suppression of the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi in 1989, and the nullifying of the 1990 general election result, Burma was under heavy pressure from the Western democracies to restore a legitimate government or face sanctions.

In the past few months, the Burmese government has taken some symbolic initiatives toward democratic and human rights reforms. In November 2010, the government held general election and released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

The election was, however, held with a sure-win situation for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Suu Kyi was released only after the election. Subsequently, the new government was formed in March this year and is headed by none other than former military generals in civilian clothes.

These developments make many believe that Burma is moving toward a stable democratic society, the move welcomed by members of ASEAN and Burma’s big trading partners such as China and India. The new developments have also convinced the European Union, in April this year, to lift travel and financial restrictions on four ministers, including the foreign minister for one year.

In spite of these symbolic developments, however, the human rights issue remains a fundamental problem. There are still over 2,000 political prisoners across Burma. Forced labor is still widespread. Ethnic minorities still do not find peace and security in their own territories.

With recent developments inside Burma, it is possible that majority of the 10-member states, if not by consensus, will endorse Burma for the chairmanship. This was echoed by a joint communiqué issued at the end of the two-day ASEAN summit, which stated, “We considered the proposal of Burma that it would host the ASEAN summits in 2014, in view of its firm commitment to the principles of ASEAN.”

If substantive steps are taken to improve human rights conditions, by releasing political prisoners unconditionally, ceasing forced labor, arbitrary arrests, tortures, and if the government begins to build mutual trust with ethnic minorities, Burma deserves its rightful place like any other ASEAN member.

As ASEAN is keen on improving ties with Western democracies, especially with the goal of achieving European-style community by 2015, the voices of both the United States and the European Union will be a significant factor in the final decision-making of awarding chairmanship to Burma.

Awarding chairmanship can in fact help Burma’s legitimacy claim and probably boost international recognition. However, doing so without any realistic improvement in human rights conditions will be tantamount to a mockery of the new ASEAN human rights body.

It is important to remember that Burma’s decades-old conflict is more than just the issue of Asean chairmanship. It is imperative that the Burmese government seeks legitimacy and recognition not only from the international community, but also from the different ethnic groups of the country.

ASEAN has a chance to prove that it is seriously working to resolve human rights problems within the ASEAN institution, as stated in its Charter. ASEAN can use the chairmanship position as a leverage to improve human rights condition inside Burma.

Since Western democracies are still reluctant to establish a robust diplomatic relationship by recognizing the legitimacy of the new Burmese government, efforts to chair ASEAN in 2014 is an attempt of the generals in plain clothes to earn legitimacy and international recognition.

By chairing ASEAN, the generals’ Burmese government hopes to gain domestic and international approval. Moreover, it will give Burma the opportunity to host leaders of the Western democracies, who otherwise would not visit the country. It also has the possibility of easing Western sanctions.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) whose works have been widely published in five continents―Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America. He currently pursues a Ph.D. in political science at Northern Illinois University. He can be reached at nkipgen1@niu.edu.

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