By Col. R. Hariharan
Myanmar President Thein Sein must be rejoicing at the visiting Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s comment that political reforms in Myanmar looked “irreversible.” Reuters quoted the Indonesian Minister as saying, “I wish to believe and I get the sense that they are meant to be irreversible. I did not get any indication that the process will stop.”
According to the report he said he had urged Myanmar’s leaders to release more political prisoners and take greater steps to reconcile with restive ethnic groups, He expected progress in these areas before the country assumes the chair of ASEAN.
Myanmar is in the run for the rotating chairmanship of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc in 2014. It was a loss of face for Myanmar when it had to give up its turn to chair the grouping in 2004, when some of the member countries objected to it. They cited the failure of Myanmar to implement democratic reforms in the country to support their objection.
In fact, the purpose of the Indonesian Foreign Minister was to study the progress Myanmar has made in implementing political reforms as decided at the 18th ASEAN summit in Jakarta in May 7-8, 2011. The decision was taken after the subject of Myanmar’s chair for ASEAN 2014 chairmanship was discussed at the Jakarta summit.
After the summit, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the leaders of ASEAN “do not object to the idea” of Myanmar’s chairmanship. However, he added, “Myanmar must continue its democratisation progress to avoid negative perceptions from other nations,” reflecting the reservations some of the member nations including Indonesia. These nations felt the matter required certain processes before a decision could be taken.
Earlier, the Indonesian Foreign Minister had spoken of some reservations he had on Myanmar. “We’re very keen to hear what the implications of that law [registration of political parties] will be in terms of participation in the election…We want to hear from Myanmar what the practical implication of this law is vis-a-vis their own commitment to (conduct) an inclusive, multiparty election, and, therefore, we will be looking for evidence or proof that the election law does not in any way contravene that kind of spirit.”
In view of this, the Indonesian Foreign Minister’s comments are important for Myanmar. They are also significant as he had made the statement after meeting both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) during his visit.
Myanmar attaches a great deal of importance to chairing the ASEAN in 2014 as it would an important first step in winning international recognition for the military-sponsored process of democratising the country and tacit recognition to the flawed 2008 Constitution.
ASEAN chair would also improve the civilian government’s credibility and democratic credentials. It would also endorse the 7-step road map to democracy, embarked upon by the military junta, as a credible way to achieve progressive democratic reforms.
However, the chairmanship issue is still open. According to Indonesian media on his return from Nay pyi taw, the Indonesian Foreign Minister would further discuss the results of his trip with other ASEAN foreign ministers “while taking into account dynamics developing outside the regional grouping.” It could also be on the agenda of the next ASEAN summit.
However, the chances of Myanmar assuming the chair in 2014 appear to have brightened now than before. Presumably, ASEAN could now hope Myanmar would take more positive steps to usher in genuine democratic process.
President Thein Sein during his visit to Beijing in May 2011 had sought the good offices of China in helping Myanmar’s case for ASEAN chairmanship. Apparently it was to seek China’s support to the new civilian government and mend relations with China that had gone a little frosty since 2009. After the President Thein Sein’s visit the two countries are now speaking of multi-faceted strategic relations. However, the recent Myanmar action to postpone the construction of the Myanmar-China joint Myitsone hydroelectric project is reported to have upset the Chinese. In its wake, media had reported that Myanmar Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo would discuss the issue when he visits China in October.
In this context, it is interesting to note the Myanmar Vice President, leading a delegation to the 8th China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) and the 8th China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (CABIS), met with the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at Nanning on October 20. According to official Myanmar media the subjects they discussed included “matters related to promotion of Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership between the two countries.”
Other subjects discussed covered a wide ground. They included implementation of projects on oil and natural gas sector, hydropower sector, mining sector, transport sector, agriculture, health and education sectors with momentum between the two countries, peace and stability in border areas, cooperation in ensuring regional peace and stability between the two countries.
They also discussed bilateral cooperation in issues between China and ASEAN, a subject that had also figured in the joint statement issued after President Thein Sein’s May 2011 visit to China. This would indicate probably Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship aspirations were also discussed at the October meeting of the two leaders. It is not clear what role China would be playing on this issue. But considering the *paukphaw* (sibling in Burmese) relationship between the two countries, China is likely to be a major beneficiary when Myanmar becomes chair of ASEAN with its own strategic connotations.
According to a Reuters, the Indonesian Foreign Minister in a telephone interview had urged the U.S. and European Union to ease sanctions on Myanmar as the embargoes have done more harm than good in Myanmar.
However, both the U.S. and EU have reservations about lifting economic sanctions on Myanmar, although they had welcomed measures taken by the civilian government to usher in a little more free society. They want more political prisoners to be freed and political opponents disqualified under present electoral law welcomed back to mainstream national politics. The U.S. has other concerns as well: ending the confrontation with ethnic minorities and greater transparency in Myanmar- North Korea relations, particularly nuclear cooperation which had worried the U.S.
Myanmar has already amended the electoral laws to make them more democratic. The NLD rehabilitation is also likely once more political prisoners are freed. In fact, NLD is speaking of the possibility of Aung San Suu Kyi contesting the bye election. Given these changes, ASEAN decision to welcome Myanmar as chairman for 2014 would be a big morale booster for the regime as it would increase the chances of the U.S. and the EU lifting the sanctions.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected])
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