Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Whither Myanmar/Burma as ASEAN Chair

Other than Indonesia's efforts to mediate the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihear area, the other major issue at this weekend's ASEAN Summit was the request of Myanmar (aka Burma) to assume the chair of ASEAN in 2014. Issues regarding human rights and governance in the country aside, Myanmar's inexperience with operating an open economy and dealing with issues of regional integration would mean that its taking on the ASEAN chair would be a major setback for the AEC.

Under the formal and informal rules of ASEAN, Myanmar does have some basis for making this claim.  In 2006, Myanmar was due to become ASEAN chair as the position is rotated based on the alphabetical order of the English names of the member states.   The regime, under pressure, agreed to defer its turn to an indefinite date.  The Myanmar regime could have invoked this decision to justify taking the next available slot, e.g., the 2012 slot due to be taken by Cambodia. Although this might be beneficial for the Preah Vihear dispute (imagine Cambodia as ASEAN chair if the dispute continues into 2012!) it would be disruptive as Cambodia is experienced from its WTO accession and benefitted from trade policy capacity building assistance provided by the United States and others.  Myanmar, with the restrictions imposed by Burma sanctions from the West, does not have such experience or support.

Rather, Myanmar proposed swapping the 2014 slot due to be taken by Laos, with Laos moving to the 2016 slot currently scheduled for Myanmar, after Malaysia. Although there is also precedent for this move, as Brunei and Indonesia swapped slots, having Myanmar as ASEAN chair in the run-up to 2015 would seriously hurt AEC implementation by 2015.  Laos may be as economically underdeveloped as Myanmar, but the government has greater experience in opening up their economy and like Cambodia has received substantial assistance in developing their trade and investment policy skills.  For example, Laos recently opened its first stock exchange.

At some point, ASEAN will have to deal with having Myanmar as ASEAN chair.  In five years' time, perhaps both the regime and the Burma policy of the West will sufficiently change to make a Myanmar chairmanship acceptable.  Those issues aside, ASEAN cannot afford to have Myanmar in charge of the final steps of the AEC development in 2014.  ASEAN should thus keep to the current schedule and let Cambodia, Brunei and Laos take over as ASEAN chair in due course.