Myanmar and ASEAN: Settling old scores

An incident in 1995 involving Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may cloud relations between a National League for Democracy government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been silent about her attitude towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Myanmar’s future relations with the regional body. It is has been two months since the election triumph of her National League for Democracy. So far, only Singapore has sent the NLD leader a congratulatory message. Other ASEAN members are waiting for the formation of the new government in Nay Pyi Taw, which is expected in February.

At the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in November, all ASEAN leaders praised outgoing President U Thein Sein for a successful “free and fair” election. The economic and political reforms introduced by U Thein Sein convinced ASEAN to support Myanmar’s request to chair ASEAN in 2014, for the first time since it joined the grouping in 1997. In 2005, during the ASEAN summit in Vientiane, Myanmar agreed to skip the chairmanship the following year, citing a lack of preparation.

Myanmar’s status in ASEAN markedly improved after it successfully chaired the grouping in 2014. In certain areas, Myanmar has become a standard bearer. The November 8 election was widely lauded because it involved the participation of more than 10,000 Myanmar and international observers to ensure a free and fair vote. No other ASEAN member has invited as many observers for a national election.

Another standard bearer is media freedom. Four years ago, the media in Myanmar was given one of the world’s lowest rankings, alongside North Korea. However, the abolition of pre-publication censorship in 2012 has gradually transformed Myanmar into a leader in media freedom in ASEAN. The latest rankings by media freedom groups have placed overall media freedom in Myanmar behind only Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Information Minister U Ye Htut told an international media gathering recently in Yangon that ASEAN could no longer hide behind Myanmar.

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After Myanmar was admitted to ASEAN in 1997, its access to assistance was subject to restrictions imposed by the grouping’s dialogue partners. For nearly 14 years, ASEAN has spoken on behalf of Myanmar and helped the country’s backward economy to gradually integrate economically with the region.

However, there’s a possibility of challenges ahead in relations between ASEAN and an NLD government. ASEAN ignored Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle for democracy after the NLD was robbed of the 1990 election. The Nobel laureate had once entertained high hopes that ASEAN would defend her and uphold human rights and the rights of ASEAN citizens. It did not happen.

The NLD leader was also disappointed in late July 1995 when her first scheduled meeting with some ASEAN diplomats based in Yangon was abruptly cancelled at the junta’s request. That incident has clouded her relations with ASEAN until today.

During the 15 years that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spent under house arrest, ASEAN leaders chose to avoid antagonising the junta by citing the grouping’s cherished policy of non-interference in its members’ domestic affairs as their reason for not raising her situation. Only the grouping’s dialogue partners, and especially the United States and the European Union, continued to press for her freedom. When Thailand chaired ASEAN from July 2008 to December 2009, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva pushed for the unconditional release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, much to the chagrin of Myanmar’s military leaders.

Since her release from house arrest in 2010 and her election to parliament in the 2012 by-elections, the NLD leader’s focus has been national politics, her parliamentary duties, and winning the November election. Something she has not done is to try to reconcile with ASEAN, an organisation she rarely mentions.

It remains to be seen how an NLD government will engage with ASEAN, especially at this juncture with the launch of the ASEAN Community on December 31, 2015. ASEAN permanent representatives in Jakarta have received a firm assurance from the outgoing government that the new administration in Nay Pyi Taw would maintain its current policy towards ASEAN, especially those related to the ASEAN Community Vision in 2025. If that was the case, Myanmar would have a head start as it has already accomplished many of the action plans outlined in the vision statement.

In February 2013, at a meeting with foreign business leaders from the region, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi expressed confidence that Myanmar would one day surpass ASEAN. Therefore, it is imperative that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reconnects with ASEAN again.

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