After a series of closed door discussions and numerous rephrasing by policy-makers including foreign experts, Burma has finally picked the theme “Moving forward in unity towards a peaceful and prosperous community” for its engagement with ASEAN next year. Like previous ASEAN chairs, the title reflects Naypyidaw’s agenda and priorities when it takes up the grouping’s helm in 126 days.
The 10-word slogan, the longest ever in ASEAN history, was recently given a personal nod by President Thein Sein. Earlier a few versions were put forward for consideration focusing on the centrality of ASEAN, economic cooperation and community building as well as ongoing political and economic reforms. The chosen theme was neutral and encompassing. “It is very comprehensive,” said a senior ASEAN official, who attended the ASEAN Economic Ministerial meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, where Burma made the official announcement.
After ASEAN leaders endorsed the 2014 chair in November 2011, Burma has studied the themes and performances of each chair since 2008 when the bloc’s charter was adopted. That year, Singapore chaired ASEAN with an impressive theme “One ASEAN at the Heart of Dynamic Asia,” echoing the island’s desire to increase the grouping’s profile beyond Southeast Asia.
Thailand succeeded Singapore with a major task to implement the new charter. Bangkok was true to its slogan, “ASEAN Charter for ASEAN People,” with packed programmes for civil society groups’ participation, which scared a few ASEAN leaders away. Then came Vietnam with a simple theme: “Towards the ASEAN Community: From Vision to Action.” It did not take long for the chair to find out that spurning common actions among the ASEAN members were an uphill task.
Indonesia took over Vietnam’s chair with a shoo-in goal, “ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations.” As the only ASEAN member in the G-20, Indonesia wanted to be the ASEAN voice among the world’s most economically advanced countries. ASEAN’s position was uplifted. But it was temporary.
Last year, Cambodia’s messianic theme of “One Community, One Destiny” had the opposite effect. As the last country to join ASEAN in 1999, the practice of the “ASEAN way” had yet to sink in. But Cambodia should be credited for narrowing development gaps among the old and new ASEAN members but very few people took notice.
“Our People, Our Future Together” is the current theme advocated by the chair, Brunei. True to form and substance, every move the chair has initiated is based on consultations and consensus. The remaining four months will be smooth, paving the way for a conservative but holistic approach for the next ASEAN chair.
Burma has good reasons to be cautious about the role. First, Naypyidaw will serve as the chair for the first time–16 years after its admission. It skipped the 2005 slot due to its domestic crisis along with pressure from ASEAN colleagues. It does not want to adopt an “overtly” forward-looking tone as it could sound a bit patronising. Second, the theme must be topical enough to reflect norms and values as well as the inspiration of the ASEAN and its peoples. In this case, Burma had to forego the so-called non-ASEAN elements related to their reforms. Finally, it must also resonate well with the situation at home.
The chair’s domestic condition will certainly dominate next year’s ASEAN agenda, especially the situation in Arakan state and the fate of the Rohingya people. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei will almost certainly raise the issue. This time the chair cannot get away scot-free. Burma turned down the planned ASEAN special meeting in October to discuss the Rohingya issue, which was later cancelled. Concerned ASEAN countries affected by the influx of Rohingya prefer a regional solution.
Much is at stake for Burma over its handling of such a sensitive issue with transnational and international impacts. It will serve as a barometer of the depth and scope of its ongoing democratic reforms. As a late comer, Burma is still learning from the ASEAN experience. After Indonesia turned towards democracy in 1998, it took a few years until it opened up and discussed internal problems with ASEAN. But at the recent ASEAN annual meeting, Jakarta voluntarily reported on its human rights situation to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights.
Burma was lucky that the deadline for ASEAN integration was postponed to 31 December 2015. That means it has an additional year to prepare for the realisation of a single economic community, after which Malaysia will take the chair. But as the theme suggests, Burma is confident that it can now become a catalyst for community-building in ASEAN.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group.
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.