Hotels and restaurants are springing up in Myanmar’s capital, barely eight years old, to cater to visitors from nine other Asean countries in what officials see as a test run for Myanmar’s debut chairmanship of the regional grouping from January 2014. But Nay Pyi Taw lacks direct international flights, and internet connectivity is weak.
While a number of regional diplomats remain sceptical that the country will get its physical infrastructure to host hundreds of meetings next year in place, they hope its chairmanship of the 46-year old grouping will move Asean forward as a community with a year to go before the end-2015 goal, and at a time when superpower rivalry in the region is set to intensify.
Myanmar’s leadership of Asean comes as the country continues to embark on wide-ranging political and economic reforms after two decades of autocratic rule and Western sanctions that saw Asean’s policy of engagement criticised and drove the country to defer taking its turn as chair seven years ago. Its dramatic opening up of late has seen a flurry of investor interest and sparked a construction boom, and its neighbours are pitching in to help.
“Several of the Asean-6 countries, including Singapore, have been working with Myanmar through bilateral and Asean programmes to provide capacity-building support to officials at various levels involved in preparing for the slew of meetings in 2014,” says Moe Thuzar, a former diplomat and coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). Singapore’s Foreign Ministry has offered training courses and relevant briefings to Myanmar officials, including in protocol and conference work.
But, Moe adds: “Myanmar will need to consult with fellow Asean members to ensure that chairmanship also equals leadership.”
Observers believe Myanmar is mindful not to see a repeat of the 2012 debacle at the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh, which for the first time failed to agree on a communique under what many saw as pressure from China on the hosts to avoid specific mention of disputes in the South China Sea.
But analysts feel question marks linger over whether it can adopt a sufficiently independent diplomatic posture even after its recent reforms, that have seen it renew ties with the United States.
“It is clear that by opening up, Myanmar wanted to reduce its economic dependence on China,” Vishnu Juwono of the University of Indonesia told The Straits Times.
But he notes that the leadership is also under pressure to “show quickly the economic benefit of political reforms”.
Myanmar journalists and commentators have acknowledged what their diplomats privately admit could affect their chairmanship.
“I feel worried we will not be able to fulfil the responsibilities of the chair. There is still communal violence and fighting with militias, and we have little experience holding big events,” Zayyar Nanda, political editor at Eleven Media Group, told The Straits Times.
However, Myanmar’s foreign ministry has begun efforts to assure others, especially those in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, that violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Bengali Muslims in Rakhine state is under control.
The ministry put out a 24-page booklet on efforts for peace, stability and development in the state on its website, and a short promotional video shown to Asean leaders in Brunei as it symbolically accepted the chairmanship had prominent footage of Buddhists and Muslims worshipping peacefully.
Aware of the high expectations on him as he took the gavel from outgoing chair Brunei last week, Myanmar President Thein Sein indicated he would not let Asean be divided, saying: “At a time when our citizens and the entire world are watching closely, it is extremely crucial for us to show unity in fulfilling our common objectives.”
Others are also determined to ensure Myanmar’s leaders succeed, with Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh pledging the Asean secretariat’s help for Myanmar’s chairmanship.
Placing the grouping’s high hopes on Myanmar to pull it off, he told The Straits Times: “Whether we will have a celebration in 2015 or not depends on what we can achieve in 2014.”