Thursday, November 17, 2011

Coping with Myanmar as ASEAN Chair

To the disappointment of many (including this author), ASEAN leaders have decided to let Myanmar become ASEAN chair in 2014.  Most critics disagree with “rewarding” the Myanmar regime for its reform efforts since the installation of an elected government.  I share some of those concerns, but as the focus of this blog is on the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), I am much more concerned about the ability of a government which has relatively limited experience in international trade and finance matters to serve as ASEAN chair going into the final preparation year before the AEC takes effect in 2015. 

In any event, the ASEAN leadership has spoken.  The question is how everyone else, in particular the critics of the Myanmar regime, should react. 

First, those concerned about the development of ASEAN’s three pillars of regional cooperation (political-security, economic and socio-cultural) should not allow disappointment to overwhelm their support for the regional bloc.  At some point Myanmar was going to become ASEAN chair, if not in 2014, then in 2016 as per the alphabetical rotation system (the 2014 bid arose because Myanmar invoked its having deferred its previous spot in the rotation).  The West, in particular the United States, needs a fully developed ASEAN to stabilize the region politically and economically.  By and large, the West has understood this and avoided counterproductive outbursts regarding ASEAN’s decision.

As a result of ASEAN’s decision, the West needs to adjust its Burma sanctions accordingly.  Aid intended to assist ASEAN with economic integration should be allowed to support Myanmar’s participation both in the AEC and the greater world economy.    This is important because much of the ASEAN Secretariat’s functions are supported by aid from the West; continued blocks on applying that aid to help Myanmar cope with economic integration will drag down AEC formation, particularly with Myanmar as ASEAN chair.  Furthermore, sanctions which are in some cases overbroadly written should be trimmed back to allow the business community to explore appropriate economic opportunities in Myanmar.  That doesn’t mean that all sanctions should be dropped, only that those sanctions which are counterproductive either to the regional goal of ASEAN economic integration or the national goal of improving the lot of the Burmese people should be dialed back.

ASEAN, for its part, needs to take measures to ensure that having Myanmar as ASEAN chair does not adversely impact regional integration.  Now more than ever, it is imperative that the next ASEAN Secretary-General have some economics background, for Myanmar as ASEAN chair is not going to provide economic leadership during 2014.   ASEAN countries will have to step up their leadership roles within the grouping to make up for this capacity deficit.  The ASEAN Secretariat also needs institutional strengthening to help the Secretary General and chairs.   Finally, ASEAN needs to maintain scrutiny on reforms in Myanmar and be prepared to delay Myanmar’s chairmanship term to 2016 or later if necessary; this will require having Indonesia or another member serve as mentor/backup chair.

Finally, critics of the Myanmar regime’s politics and treatment of ethnic and religious minorities will be disappointed with this decision.  However, they should also understand that the ASEAN chair decision has handed them another arena for pressuring the Myanmar regime.  For example, the debate on whether the U.S. president should attend an East Asia Summit in Naypidaw in 2014 will provide additional opportunities for discussing the plight of the Burmese people.  Furthermore, although the reform efforts in Myanmar are not optimal, they should still be met by appropriate steps; allowing aid to support Myanmar’s economic integration would be such a step.

Thus, the decision on Myanmar as ASEAN chair has closed, yet opened up another set of problems and opportunities for the region.  This requires that ASEAN redouble its efforts on regional integration, and ensure that having Myanmar as ASEAN chair does not serve as a permanent distraction or millstone around those efforts.  Similarly, ASEAN leaders need to recognize that the concerns of the West need to be met by holding Myanmar under continued scrutiny.   Finally, the Myanmar regime should continue its political and economic reforms to ensure that the country fully participates in the regional and world community.