Myanmar Steps into the Limelight

by Clare Richardson-Barlow
December 19, 2013

This is one of eleven essays in the “2014 Asia-Pacific Watch List.”

By Clare Richardson-Barlow

December 19, 2013

Effective January 1, Myanmar will assume the 2014 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In addition to its annual summit, ASEAN holds roughly 1,100 meetings, focused on a variety of economic, political, and social issues that tie into the year’s theme. The theme in 2014 will be “Moving Forward in Unity Towards a Peaceful and Prosperous Community.” The world will be watching Myanmar to see how the newly reformed country will address a number of domestic and international challenges during its tenure as ASEAN chair.

Nearly fourteen years since it was first passed over for the ASEAN chairmanship, Myanmar has developed into quite a different nation. However, civil unrest among ethnic and religious nationals persists, with accusations of repression and state-sponsored violence raising questions about how much the leadership has learned from the past. Myanmar will thus face significant challenges during its chairmanship, apart from logistical and human and physical capacity issues. Gauging its success will not be as easy as counting meetings but will instead require observers to pay attention to how well the country tackles three obstacles.

First, Myanmar must prove to the world that its reforms and development are not just political maneuvers but will continue as the country gains its footing in its new leadership role. This means not shying away from controversial issues, such as human rights, religious freedom, and the environment, that could invite scrutiny of Myanmar’s own political and social reforms. For example, peacefully addressing ethnic disputes in the northern Kachin State will help the country gain legitimacy among ASEAN partners when it comes time to discuss a human rights mechanism. Inadequately addressing such concerns, either within ASEAN or domestically, will have reverberations for international and domestic confidence in Myanmar’s government and contribute to the cycle of mistrust that has prevailed for so long.

Second, Myanmar must navigate the complicated balance of relationships it has with its ASEAN neighbors, China, and the United States. This means addressing disputes in the South China Sea, as well as adjusting to the recent U.S. rebalance to Asia and China’s realignment policies in Southeast Asia. The ASEAN Summit will bring world leaders to Myanmar and require the country to carefully balance its relationships with Chinese president Xi Jinping and U.S. president Barack Obama. At the very least, a failure to address the need for a code of conduct in the South China Sea could put Myanmar’s status as an independent actor in jeopardy and undermine ASEAN efforts to facilitate a resolution.

Third, Myanmar will need to continue the tough work on regional economic integration that is the cornerstone of ASEAN connectivity. This means making strides toward implementing the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint by the 2015 deadline and working to lower development gaps that undermine efforts to realize the ASEAN vision of an integrated market. Taking steps within Myanmar’s own economy to address this issue will have a positive effect on ASEAN connectivity, as economic success in one country facilitates increased trade among its partners and more interconnected economies.

In 2014, both developed and emerging economies will be watching whether Myanmar grows into its new leadership role. The leadership that Myanmar shows as ASEAN chair has the potential to translate into greater economic and political strength, stability, and regional unity.