By Francis Wade
Indonesia said on Tuesday that it was giving “positive consideration” to Burma’s bid for the ASEAN chair for 2014, despite months of warnings from rights groups that having one of Southeast Asia’s most maligned governments in the top position would tarnish the bloc’s reputation and do little to bring political stability to the region.
The comments came from Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa at the end of the 44th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting yesterday. Indonesia holds the revolving chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and has oscillated somewhat over its opinion on whether Burma is fit to take over in 2014.
Human Rights Watch said shortly after the bid was made public in May that, if eventually successful, it would be an “embarrassment to the region”. It had been due to take the chair in 2005 but was blocked by Malaysia, which deemed it to be unfit.
Since the elections in November last year that ushered in a nominally civilian government, the Thein Sein administration has embarked on a public relations drive aimed at shedding a reputation synonymous with human rights abuse.
Ironically for the sizeable number of observers that claim little has changed in the country since the polls, Natalegawa said in a statement after yesterday’s summit that “ASEAN’s role in the global community of nations requires a strong ASEAN Secretariat”.
Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan continued that a stronger leadership was needed to garner international support for units like the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), something it may struggle to do if Burma takes the chair.
As an emerging economic region with a long history of political instability, ASEAN governments have increasingly spoken of their desire for a leadership that can tackle the manifold social, political and economic problems they collectively face – a call that gains pertinence as borders become more porous, trade grows and an ASEAN ‘community’ blossoms.
Behind the scenes, however, some ministers have expressed scepticism about Burma’s presence in the bloc, with Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya saying in May that it was “unfit” for the chair.
His comments marked a break from the recent past when Thailand, as chair of ASEAN, was reluctant to criticise the regime. Surin Pitsuwan, a veteran Thai politician, however is believed to be supportive of Burma’s bid.
Despite assertions from Naypyidaw that Burma is progressing in the right direction, it remains Southeast Asia’s least developed countries, and ranks 132 out of 169 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. Various assessments brand it a top source country for refugees, drugs and human trafficking, all of which have become a sensitive blot on the region’s reputation.