The chairman of the Southeast Asian Press Association, Kavi Chongkittavorn, spoke to DVB’s Toe Zaw Latt about the challenges and opportunities that Burma will face as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Burma will host the ASEAN chair in 2014, what are the challenges and what are the biggest opportunities?
Burma will become the ASEAN chair after 17 years of waiting, so it is a very meaningful moment for Burma. There are many challenges though. The first is that Burma has to learn how ASEAN members behave when they work together. Most of the time, Burma visited other countries without being the host, now in the coming years Burma will be the host of at least 300 meetings and half of them will be on economic affairs.
So you have to be able to manage your budget, your traffic, your schedule, your paperwork so that you can facilitate various meetings leading up to the summit next year [in November].
Logistically is Burma ready to host the 300 meetings, and who is responsible for hosting them?
Essentially it is the government and President Thein Sein who has to take care of every aspect and all kinds of logistics. But it is not only the foreign ministry per se or the ministry of information or the ministry of economic planning; it is the job of everybody inside Burma. The government has their job to do but also the people on the street in Rangoon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw also have an important role to play because they will come in close contact with ASEAN diplomats. You have to understand if you get stuck in traffic next year you may think it because there is an ASEAN meeting [going on] instead of getting mad at the government.
How can the Burmese government and the people contribute to this ASEAN chairmanship?
The media has the most important role because they can inform the people what Burma’s role is in ASEAN. Secondly, they can write about issues important to ASEAN, such as economic integration and the peace and conflict prevention efforts in Burma. For ordinary people they have to know more of what ASEAN has done for Burma, for example, increasing [the country’s] regional and international standing and ending the international isolation of Burma.
There are issues regarding Burma’s connectivity to ASEAN. In 2006 Burma declined the chairmanship to avoid a damaging western boycott of the group’s meetings. What are the key differences between then and now and is Burma ready to connect with the rest of the region?
I think there are three aspects of connectivity. At the moment the most difficult is the so-called “institutional connectivity”, because institutionally, Burma has just come out of its shell so that aspect will take some time. Other connectivity is much easier such as infrastructure – because the roads can be built, the bridges can be connected – but institutionally the mindset takes some time. The last one is people to people. By opening up the country you already have people to people connections. The fact that now most of the major airlines have added Rangoon and Naypyidaw to their flight itinerary is an indication that more and more people will come to Burma.
Now, how the government improves the opportunities for people to come [to Burma] depends on the policy of so called one-stop visas. [In 2012 Thailand and Cambodia launched the single visa scheme that meant one tourist visa would be valid in both countries.] Burma is thinking of joining Thailand and Cambodia so that any tourists who have visas from one of these countries can travel to the others without [buying] more visas.
Another key event is the East Asia Summit in November, where Burma will host representatives from some of the world’s most powerful countries, including the US, Russia, China and India. What can Burma and the people expect from this gathering?
[pullquote] “The message is very clear…Don’t miss this opportunity.” [/pullquote]
This will be a very big event because all the major countries of the world will come and world leaders [such as] Obama, Xi Jinping, Putin, Mahmoud Singh, Tony Abbott, and John Key [will descend on the country]. All of these are known as the ASEAN Plus 8 [ASEAN Plus 8 are the 10 ASEAN member states plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand, United States and Russia.] It is important for Burma because they can change the ASEAN agenda and [improve] its external relations with major powers.
You have to know that the history of ASEAN is a history of relations with dialogue partners and ASEAN has done very well because the dialogue partners have been engaged with ASEAN for the past two-three decades. [ASEAN’s dialogue partners are China, Japan, Republic of Korea, India, and the United States.]
In Burma, there is still ongoing fighting mainly in Kachin and Shan states. ASEAN is committed to regional security and stability so how can ASEAN help Burma fix these regional security and stability issues?
This is a very interesting aspect of ASEAN co-operation. ASEAN recently established an ASEAN Peace Institute and Reconciliation (AIPR) and I think Burma can make use of this. By urging the institute to conduct studies relating to the issue of communal conflict and minority issues, [AIPR] can then give good recommendations to Burma and to ASEAN members.
Do you have a message for the people of Burma and the government about the ASEAN chairmanship?
The message is very clear: you wait 17 years to be chair and the next chair will come in another 10 years, so you better make use of it so you can promote your national interests and profile. Don’t miss this opportunity.