Thursday, July 14, 2016

Myanmar - Democratic Myanmar Moves to Deepen Its Ties With ASEAN

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was in Thailand in late June for talks with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on developing economic ties and cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In an email interview, Mely Caballero-Anthony, an associate professor the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, discusses Myanmar’s relations with its ASEAN neighbors.

WPR: What efforts has Myanmar taken since its political opening to build ties with its ASEAN neighbors, and how effective has its outreach been?

Mely Caballero-Anthony: One of Myanmar’s most significant achievements since the start of its political reforms in 2011 was its successful chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014. It was the first time that Myanmar assumed its turn as chair of the grouping since joining ASEAN in 1997. It had been denied its turn in 2008 due to its record of political repression. 

Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN gave the country the opportunity to show that it was a responsible member of the bloc, that it was committed to its democratic transition, and that it shares ASEAN’s vision of a political and security community that is “just, democratic and harmonious.” As part of its commitment to peaceful democratic change, former President Thein Sein also had to follow through on his promises of releasing political prisoners; allowing the opposition party National League of Democracy (NLD) and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to take part in the 2012 and 2015 elections; and negotiating a comprehensive cease-fire with the country’s armed ethnic groups. 

Since the landmark national elections in late 2015, the NLD leads the country’s first democratically elected government. Myanmar’s success in holding free, peaceful and credible elections has the potential of turning the once pariah country into one of the more promising democracies in Southeast Asia.

WPR: How does Myanmar’s close relationship with China affect ties with its ASEAN partners?

Caballero-Anthony: Since independence, Myanmar’s leaders have always espoused a non-aligned and independent foreign policy. Although Myanmar had to lean on China during its period of military rule because of sanctions imposed by Western countries, the country still built relations with its ASEAN neighbors and cultivated ties with other regional powers like Japan and India.

It was also notable that despite being the largest investor in Myanmar, China’s ties with Myanmar substantially changed during the previous government of former President Thein Sein. Myanmar took steps to become less reliant on China, as illustrated by the cancellation of the Myitsone dam hydropower project. Plus, there has been backlash from local populations against Chinese investments and business practices in Myanmar. Armed skirmishes that occurred on the China-Myanmar border that resulted in the displacement of thousands of people have also created tensions between the two neighbors. 

Although one could argue that China will continue to be an important partner for Myanmar regardless of current tensions, the NLD-led government is expected to carry on with Thein Sein’s policy of actively cultivating relations with Japan, India and the United States, as well as with its ASEAN neighbors, especially since Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are among the top investors in Myanmar. As the country continues to develop a more engaged foreign policy, it is likely that Myanmar will be more circumspect in its dealings with China and will take extra care to be seen to be consistent with its non-aligned stance.

WPR: What is the outlook for Myanmar’s regional relations under the NLD government, and how do the party’s priorities with regional partners differ from those of the junta?

Caballero-Anthony: There has been a lot of goodwill shown to both the Thein Sein and the NLD-led governments by ASEAN and the other countries in the region throughout Myanmar’s period of transition, and this is expected to continue. It is expected that the NLD government will carry on with many of the political and economic reforms begun under Thein Sein. 

Aside from embarking on more state visits to ASEAN and other capitals in the region to forge stronger diplomatic and trade relations, as well as to attract more foreign investments, the NLD will need to implement the economic reforms initiated by the previous government. These include reforming regulatory frameworks to facilitate trade and investment; working closely with multilateral institutions and funding agencies to develop human resources; and improving infrastructure and telecommunications. 

Unlike the previous government, which was seen to be focused more on state issues, the NLD, with its popular mandate, will also be expected to embark on more people-centered projects to address poverty, unemployment, and women’s and children’s rights, as well as strengthening efforts to create sustainable and balanced growth.

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