Burma Awarded 2014 Asean Chair

Burmese President Thein Sein takes his chair at the 19th
Asean Summit in Indonesian resort island of Bali on Nov.17.
(Photo: Getty Images)
By BA KAUNG | Thursday, November 17, 2011 | Irrawaddy

The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), meeting at the 19th Asean Summit in Bali, Indonesia, announced on Thursday that its members had unanimously agreed to give Burma the chairmanship of the regional bloc in 2014.

Burma had been scheduled to assume the chairmanship in 2016, but requested to take the chair early after being passed over in 2006 due to concerns over the repressive methods used by the country’s previous authoritarian regime.

The issue of whether to grant Burma the 2014 chair was one of the top agenda items at the Asean Summit. The leaders of 10-member regional bloc, including Burma’s President Thein Sein, are also expected to discuss maritime territorial disputes, free trade and other regional issues.

The Burmese government's request earlier this year to be given the Asean chairmanship in 2014 was widely seen as part of its effort to gain domestic and international legitimacy after assuming power in March following the controversial elections held in November 2010.

Critics had argued that Burma should be granted the Asean chair only after the country undertook democratic changes and improved its human rights record, but the Asean leaders apparently felt that giving Burma the chairmanship would improve the chances of further reform in these areas.

“It’s not about the past, it’s about the future, what leaders are doing now,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters. “We’re trying to ensure the process of change continues.”

In recent months, the Burmese government made a number of overtures to the opposition, including inviting pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to a meeting with President Thein Sein in August and releasing around 220 political prisoners in October. In addition, the government has relaxed its draconian controls over the media, legalized trade unions and suspended work on an unpopular Chinese-backed hydropower dam.

Despite these reforms, US President Barack Obama said that violations of human rights persist in Burma and nations must build support for the fundamental rights of every human being.

In a speech to the Australian Parliament on Thursday, Obama said the US will "continue to speak clearly" about steps that must be taken by Burma "to have a better relationship with the United States."

The Burmese government wants the US and other Western nations to lift economic sanctions imposed on the country, claiming that this will speed up its reform process.

Zay Htay, the director of the Office of President Thein Sein, wrote in a carefully-timed commentary in the Washington Post on Wednesday that the continued isolation of Burma by the US would be “a disaster.”

Though Burma remains a close ally of China, the official raised the topic of “China's rise in Asia,” stating that Burma can be a key ally in US attempts to counter China's influence in the region.

“My president’s cancellation of the Beijing-backed Myitsone Dam signaled to the world what he stands for. If the United States neglects this opportunity, Washington will part ways with the new order in the Indochina region,” wrote Zay Htay.

Although critics have previously said that Burma should not be awarded the Asean chair due to its continued detention of many political prisoners and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) welcomed the award of the Asean chairmanship to Burma.

"I think that Burma's political activities will become more vibrant after assuming the chair and Burma will also become a quality member of Asean,” NLD spokesman Nyan Win told Reuters.

The NLD, which was disbanded due to its failure to register for the 2010 parliamentary elections, will hold a historic party conference on Friday to decide whether to register under the country's recently-amended electoral law.

In an interview, Suu Kyi told on Thursday that the majority of her party leaders support registration, but the party will have to decide later whether to enter the national Parliament dominated by the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party.

No comments: