Thu 10 Oct 2013
Filed under: ASEAN,News
Myanmar, until two years ago a pariah, on Thursday formally accepted the top post of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an affirmation of the country’s new position on the international stage.
At the close of the East Asia Summit here, Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, accepted the gavel of Asean, and with it the responsibility of hosting the summit a year from now in Myanmar’s little-known, newly built and remote capital, Naypyidaw.
This year’s East Asia Summit, a broad forum of 18 countries including 10 from Asean, closed on an upbeat note of calls for stronger economic cooperation and for increased attention to nonproliferation. Sharp disagreements over the South China Sea, where China and some of its neighbors have competing territorial claims, were more muted, although that did not mean the differences had been shelved, participants said.
In remarks to the Asian leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry, who represented the United States at the summit after President Obama canceled because of the budget standoff with Republicans, said that countries with claims in the sea had a “responsibility to clarify and align their claims with international law.” He added, “They can engage in arbitration and other means of peaceful negotiation.”
Mr. Kerry also called for respect for “unimpeded commerce, freedom of navigation” and said that the rights of all nations “large and small must be respected.”
Mr. Kerry also had been scheduled to take Mr. Obama’s place on a visit to the Philippines on Friday, but Mr. Kerry’s trip was canceled Thursday too, because of a typhoon approaching Manila. Mr. Kerry promised the Filipino foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, that he was “absolutely committed to returning in a month or so.” Ties between the Philippines and the United States are “literally unbreakable,” Mr. Kerry said.
The Philippines, backed by the United States, its treaty ally, made a clear stand on the need for Asean as a group to resolve the disputes with China on a legal basis. In contrast, in a speech on Wednesday, the Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, said China would continue to have consultations with Asean countries, a phrasing that sidestepped the call for dealing with the differences under the umbrella of Asean.
Many of the delegates in Brunei were looking ahead to next year’s summit in the Myanmar capital, a city carved out of the country’s northern plains and a five-hour ride from the old capital, Yangon. Most of the residents are civil servants whose lives revolve around government buildings, hastily constructed apartments, and a motley collection of retail stores. They complain of little to do, and many rush back to Yangon for the weekends.
Myanmar has long wanted the top post of Asean, and to achieve it, had to show progress in improving a harsh human rights record. The position for 2014 was granted to Myanmar in 2011 – it was passed over for the post several years earlier — after the government released several hundred political prisoners and freed the pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest.
The leader of Myanmar told Mr. Kerry in a meeting on Thursday that Myanmar would release the last political prisoners by the end of this year, a senior State Department official said.
After decades of international isolation, and a depressed economy, Myanmar’s ability to manage the logistics of many meetings, and then two summits – of Asean, and the East Asia Summit — in the fall of 2014 would be a test, officials said. To help out, Myanmar has asked diplomats from Singapore, Thailand and South Korea for advice, they said.
The logistical challenge of hosting the summit is not the only problem for Myanmar.
After operating for years as a law unto itself outside the sphere of international standards, the Myanmar government will have to balance the nation’s diplomacy — an effort to get closer to the United States and Europe while keeping China on its side – with leadership of Asean, Myanmar officials said.
Asean has long worked on the premise that countries cannot intervene in each other’s domestic affairs, and consensus must be reached on all policies. Myanmar will be at the center of trying to forge consensus, especially among members that lean toward China and those that do not.
“The first challenge is how we can adjust Myanmar’s foreign policy,” said U Zaw Htay, a director at the Myanmar President’s Office. Myanmar will be responsible for shepherding Asean’s policies on the South China Sea, the group’s relationship with the United States and China, and the goal of achieving an Asean economic community by 2015.
Myanmar would like to rally behind the Asean members on the South China Sea issue, said U Min Zin, a scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, who is now in Yangon. At the same time, he said, Myanmar has to be careful of China, its chief economic benefactor but unpopular among the Myanmar public.
Myanmar will also have to deal with the violence between Muslims and Buddhists in central and western Myanmar, which if left unchecked could mar its image as well as its ability to run the 10-nation group. Last week, groups of Buddhists killed at least six Muslims in Thandwe in the western part of the country.
“The most problematic issue for Myanmar is the anti-Muslim atmosphere,” said Mikael Gravers, an expert on Myanmar expert affairs at Aarhus University in Denmark, who is now in Myanmar. “Muslim countries of Asean are not comfortable with it.”
Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.