ASEAN considering Burma’s quest for chair

Burma’s president is in Jakarta this week for the annual ASEAN summit in which the former general appears to have garnered high-level support in his push to take the chair of the regional bloc for 2014.

Thein Sein, on his first official foreign visit since taking office in March, arrived on Thursday two days prior to the weekend’s summit. The early arrival allowed for bilateral talks with his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, in which they discussed an increase in bilateral trade to $US500 million per year by 2015.

Also on the agenda was a push by Thein Sein for Indonesian support in his quest for the ASEAN chair. Whilst Natalegawa told a press conference that Yudhoyono would raise the issue at the weekend conference, Kyodo news quoted an unnamed Thai delegate as saying that ASEAN officials “agreed” to support Burma.

The Nation newspaper also reported today that Laos, which had been due to take the chair in 2014, was “happy” to swap it with Burma.

The deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Elaine Pearson, said in a statement this week that “Rewarding Burma with ASEAN’s chairmanship after it staged sham elections and still holds 2,000 political prisoners would be an embarrassment for the region”.

Natalegawa will travel to Burma in a bid to assess the suitability of it taking the post. The mooted trip was announced in a press conference that, contrary to tradition, Thein Sein refused to appear at.

“The [Indonesian] President has especially instructed the foreign minister to pay a visit to Myanmar [Burma] to contact the Myanmarese government for more detailed information on Myanmar`s readiness for the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014,” Natalegawa said.

Burma had been due to take the chair in 2005, but Malaysia deemed the country unfit, a view thatactivists believe has not changed given that the country is still synonymous human rights abuses. “ASEAN leaders need to decide if they will let Burma demote ASEAN to the laughing stock of intergovernmental forums,” stated HRW.

Burma’s pariah status is often seen as a serious stumbling block to numerous issues for the regional bloc, whilst Indonesia’s backing would be seen as major PR coup for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which officially took power on 30 March.

Burma’s military has, according to Debbie Stothard, director of civil society group ALT-SEAN, “modelled its system of democracy on the one that Indonesia has discarded,” referring to the questionable ‘democracy’ that former Indonesian dictator Suharto resided over until 1998.

What may be chief amongst the stumbling blocks is a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) being sought with the EU, athough the bloc’s nominal sanctions regime on Burma will make any sort of deal problematic. The desire for greater trade links was highlighted on Wednesday at an EU-ASEAN business summit, also in Jakarta.

The Jakarta Post quoted EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht as saying the EU is pushing ahead with the FTA because, “Put simply, [the] EU needs ASEAN and ASEAN needs EU”.

Stothard notes however that if Burma were to chair the bloc, key foreign governments would be unwilling to attend summits in the country. “They [the US] are not going to bother turning up to an ASEAN meeting in Burma”.

The impetus then is to normalise Burma’s relations with the West, as demonstrated by ASEAN’s persistent calls for the removal of Western sanctions on Burma. The Southeast Asian bloc craves access to the 500 million consumers in the EU and thus is looking to cement business relations with the FTA.

Stothard said that despite hopes of a new era in Burma following elections last year, “the reality is that the people are so patently oppressed”.

As a result Thein Sein will need to lobby hard, using what Stothard describes as “sweetheart deals” that will seek to shore up support for the new government and erode the negative image of Burma as one of the world’s leading human rights abusers.

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