The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, more commonly referred to as ASEAN, is a political and economic organisation of ten countries in Southeast Asia.
ASEAN was formed in 1967, but due to xenophobic economic policies under the former socialist regime, and concerns over the country’s human rights abuses, Burma did not become a member until 1997. This year Burma has been awarded the chairmanship of ASEAN.
But, after so many years in the dark, is Burma is ready for the ASEAN chairmanship?
On the DVB Debate panel this week: Khin Ohmar from Burma Partnership, Kyaw Lynn Oo from Myanmar People’s Forum; Kyaw Su Mon from Irrawaddy magazine; and Zeya Thu from The Voice Weekly.
“If we cannot see any development in people’s daily lives, human rights development or healthcare development, then we can’t say this chairmanship, or being a member of ASEAN, brings any benefit to us,” said Khin Ohmar.
But Zeya Thu could see some advantages to chairing the economic bloc.
“We can’t always meet the heads of state of Russia and America individually, but if we are part of ASEAN then we can meet with them,” he said, “Now is the time for the chairmanship and it is worthwhile if it allows us to move forward.”
Lawyer and audience member Kyaw Naing Win said Burma must sort out its domestic problems before taking on the responsibility of hosting ASEAN.
“The internal situation in the country – for example, with civil wars and land confiscation cases – means the government is unable to handle all its problems. So this is not an appropriate time to take on the chairmanship of ASEAN,” he said.
The studio disagreed over who actually benefits from the ASEAN community.
“Is ASEAN structured for the people or the government? At the moment I think it is not for the people, it is just for the government,” said Thet Swe Win from the ASEAN Youth Forum.
But Kyaw Lynn Oo thinks the ASEAN approach will benefit the people.
“Nowadays, the leaders of ASEAN seem to have a people-centred mindset, whether it is practical or not,” he said.
Khin Ohmar believed the public should be given more opportunity of becoming involved in the ASEAN community.
“In practice, if we don’t have belief in our people and we don’t give them opportunities to participate, then building up the community is quite challenging, not just for our country but for all the countries in the region,” she said.
One of ASEAN’s aims is to build a strong economic community that encompasses the whole region. The studio discussed how beneficial this economic alliance would be for Burma.
Kyaw Su Mon from Irrawaddy magazine said many businesses are looking forward to the prospect of a free trade arena. But Zeya Thu was conflicted about who will benefit.
“If these imported goods come here then some of the local businesses, especially small and medium enterprises, will face difficulties. But, at the same time, if we prevent them from entering the country for the sake of our domestic businesses, then what about our consumer? Do we let the general public buy cheaper poor-quality products, just like before?” he said.
Kyaw Su Mon said it was up to the government to ensure local businesses benefitted from the ASEAN market.
“It is the responsibility of the government to bring benefits to the people and to promote local businesses so that they benefit from the opportunity,” she said.
In 2006, Burma was given the chance to chair an ASEAN summit, but because of its poor human rights record chairmanship was denied to avoid a damaging Western boycott of the bloc’s meetings.
Panellists discussed how the ASEAN alliance could improve the human rights situation in Burma.
“Regarding benefits for the people, they [ASEAN leaders and policymakers] are improving economic affairs but they are not focusing on human rights,” said Kyaw Su Mon.
Zeya Thu said human rights issues are pervasive in many ASEAN member states.
“Regarding the human rights concern, we can’t say exactly. None of the ASEAN member states fulfill the basic standards of human rights. In many ASEAN states, such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Cambodia, human rights affairs are not popular subjects,” he said.
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