Posts Tagged ‘myanmar’
The end of the new year is also the end of ASEAN’s Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan’s five year term in his position. In an article for The Diplomat, I took a look at the advice Surin has been offering Southeast Asia before leaving his post.
At the end of this year, ASEAN’s dynamic Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan will officially leave his post after five eventful years. Over the last year or so, as he has been reflecting on his tenure in the position, he has been offering his advice on how the organization can confront the vast array of future challenges that lie before it.
One issue Surin has spoken about is Myanmar’s ongoing transformation. This has been one of the most significant developments during Surin’s tenure, and he has been outspoken about it both as a success story for ASEAN and also as a potential concern. Asked recently what the main highlight was during his time as Secretary-General, he pointed to ASEAN’s important role in the opening up of Myanmar by “bringing the world in and raising the level of comfort of the leadership” to engage with the international community, which began during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. For Surin, Myanmar “validated” ASEAN’s approach of giving the country time and space rather than the Western path of slapping it with sanctions.
But the Secretary-General has also offered warnings about ethnic violence in Myanmar, particularly the persecution and discrimination against its minority Rohingya Muslims. In October, Surin proposed setting up tripartite talks between ASEAN, the United Nations and Myanmar despite repeated calls by Naypyidaw that it was an internal matter. “Myanmar believes it is their internal matter,” Surin said in Kuala Lumpur, “but your internal matter could be ours the next day if you are not careful”. His comments applied not only to Myanmar, but also to the broader debate about the applicability of ASEAN’s prized “non-interference” in member states’ affairs. He also warned in no uncertain terms that if sectarian violence in Myanmar was not curbed, the country’s persecuted minority Rohingya Muslims “could become radicalized and the entire region could become destabilized”. He repeatedly urged ASEAN members to extend humanitarian assistance to alleviate the situation.
The Secretary-General has also spoken extensively on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, which led to ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communique in July for the first time in its history. Surin has said that the SCS has the risk of becoming “Asia’s Palestine” if ASEAN and China do not resolve it quickly. He advocated for a two-pronged approach — putting aside contested claims and minimizing the current potential for miscalculation, while also finding ways to jointly share the natural resources located in the waters. On the first count, he has encouraged ASEAN’s attempts to move forward on talks concerning a code of conduct with China and even publicly floated the idea of a SCS hotline with Beijing to contain miscalculation before a regional summit last month. But he has equally and subtly stressed the need for reciprocity from China. At ASEAN’s November meeting, he noted that while ASEAN was committed to finding a resolution to the SCS issue, “it takes two to tango.”
On sharing resources, in a recent interview he cited a potential “joint development area” emerging between ASEAN countries and China where all parties could tap the resource potential in the SCS. “Leave that [contested territorial disputes] for the future, but along the way let’s benefit from the resources,” Surin said, citing the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand as a model.
But most of Surin’s comments have arguably focused on ASEAN’s internal challenges. In an interview at Australian National University earlier this year, he said ASEAN’s greatest challenge during the next five years would be trying to integrate as a grouping despite the diversity among member states. If the organization did not get its act together on forging an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015 to narrow the vast economic divide between countries, Surin said it risked “being a two-tiered ASEAN” which would undermine its efforts to play a central role in Asia-Pacific integration. Asked in February what kept him awake at night, he again focused on ASEAN integration, saying he felt it should “go faster” and was worried that member states were seeking “to keep to themselves.”
Besides the issue of economic integration, the Secretary-General has also placed a lot of emphasis on strengthening the power of the ASEAN Secretariat. Indeed, that was the focus of his last major ASEAN briefing delivered last month. Referring partly to a report he had presented to ASEAN last year on the subject, Surin’s suggestions on strengthening ASEAN’s institutional capacity range from addressing how decisions might be made in the absence of consensus, to formalizing regulations and increasing resources in particular fields.
Stressing the importance of this, Surin claimed, “if the secretariat had been given a larger space, more engagement — the impasse in July could have been avoided — not that I did not try but it is the structure that would not allow me to be involved.” As I have pointed our several times before, having a strong Secretariat will be important as ASEAN is chaired by either smaller or less-developed states in the years ahead, such as Brunei in 2013, Myanmar in 2014 and Laos in 2016.
As Surin steps off the stage, his successor, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh, will have large shoes to fill at a critical time for ASEAN. The goal of Surin’s tenure, the outgoing Secretary-General says, was to make ASEAN a household name. On this front, he has largely been successful. But now that all eyes are on ASEAN, it will be up to the grouping’s future leaders to preserve its centrality in the region in the wake of daunting internal and external challenges.
This piece was originally published for The Diplomat. You can read it here.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in the heat of the Cold War, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was reportedly convinced that an air strike and invasion to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba would be “one hell of a gamble.” Though the circumstances are notably different, that about sums up the level of risk U.S. President Barack Obama and others are now taking on Burma.
After being scorned for decades as one of the world’s most repressive regimes, Burma’s new nominally civilian government is now being coaxed back into the international fold at a dizzying pace. At its annual meeting in Bali earlier this month, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) awarded Burma the much−coveted diplomatic prize of chairing the grouping in 2014. This week, Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will make the first official U.S. visit to the heavily−sanctioned nation in over 50 years. Everyone from UN Secretary General Ban Ki−moon to EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton has offered glowing praise for the Burmese government, and even the opposition National League for Democracy, led by renowned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has re−registered to contest an upcoming by−election after boycotting polls just last year.
There is certainly some cause for all this back−patting. Since civilian President Thien Sien met with Ms. Suu Kyi in August, Burma has witnessed a cascade of reforms that have confounded even the most ardent skeptics. The government has, among other things, halted the construction of the China−backed dam due to public concerns, ended restrictions on the Internet, peaceful protest and free trade unions, loosened press freedom and released hundreds of political prisoners (though many more remain behind bars). Given these “flickers of progress,” Mr. Obama says he wants to “seize what could be a history opportunity” for Burma to possibly “forge a new relationship” with the United States.
Yet it remains unclear whether making such overtures right now will stimulate more reform or stifle it. After sanctioning and isolating a brutal hermetic regime for decades, encouraging a government that has shown an initial willingness to open up does make sense. There is also some reason to believe that Mr. Thien Sien’s government will continue down the path of change, particularly since it badly needs foreign investment from abroad to develop a battered economy and calm a restive populace at home.
But reform drives in Burma have been scuttled by hardliners before, and a similar outcome could result this time. The country also has a long walk down the road to meaningful change. The UN General Assembly offered a reminder of this when it passed a resolution last week condemning Burma in spite of recent reforms, citing “systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” ranging from arbitrary detention to rape and torture. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R.−Ind.) released a statement ahead of Mrs. Clinton’s Burma trip stating that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was aware of Burma’s intent to develop nuclear weapons with the help of North Korea as early as 2006. Given this, critics say the international community should be cautious, waiting for more concessions, withholding major trump cards and sitting tight until promises are translated into reality.
Mr. Obama has instead opted for a riskier approach, responding to startling but piecemeal changes with a high−profile visit. This is despite the fears of many that the administration could be duped and look naïve ahead of presidential elections next year if reforms ebb or even reverse. But as the fearless Ms. Suu Kyi once said, “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.” Mr. Obama and the international community have shown no shortage of courage gambling on Burma. Let’s hope it pays off.
This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily here.