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37 the national bureau of asian research nbr special report #45 | march 2014 MELY CABALLERO-ANTHONY is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She is also former Director of External Relations at the ASEAN Secretariat. She can be reached at . Myanmar’s Chairmanship of ASEAN: Challenges and Opportunities Mely Caballero-Anthony EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This essay examines the role of Myanmar as the 2014 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and assesses the impact of recent developments on the agenda during its chairmanship, including the prospects for realizing the ASEAN Community in 2015. MAIN ARGUMENT Given the fragile state of the country’s transition, chairing ASEAN for the first time is more challenging for Myanmar than it was for any of the other nine members. Yet Myanmar’s national agenda closely parallels ASEAN’s goals for 2014–15. While the tasks of the chairmanship are daunting, the extent to which Naypyidaw can skillfully navigate the myriad challenges of its political and socioeconomic reforms will have an important bearing on ASEAN’s own efforts to build the ASEAN Community. POLICY IMPLICATIONS • Consolidating democratic reforms and promoting human rights are priorities for both Myanmar and ASEAN. Member states should thus lend their support to Myanmar’s political reforms, even beyond its chairmanship in 2014. • Myanmar’s initiation of peace talks with the country’s armed ethnic groups is significant for developing national and regional capacity to prevent and resolve conflicts. Success in getting the peace talks off the ground and concluding a new peace agreement by the end of 2015 would not only boost Myanmar’s confidence as chair but also open the space for continued engagement on the plight of other marginalized communities such as the Rohingya. • How Myanmar steers ASEAN’s external relations during its chairmanship is particularly significant because of the country’s close linkages with China. Given the recent history of disagreement among member states over the South China Sea issue, Myanmar’s skillful diplomacy is critical for maintaining ASEAN solidarity under the pressure of great-power politics. 39 MYANMAR’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF ASEAN u CABALLERO-ANTHONY M yanmar finally takes over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014. This will be its first time as chair, after having missed a turn in 2006 due to its controversial human rights record. When the country was admitted into ASEAN in 1997, the association found itself having to carefully navigate through the intense pressure coming from both within and outside the region because of Myanmar’s oppressive military regime. At the same time, ASEAN also had to manage the impact of the Myanmar issue on its own credibility. A decade and a half later, the change could not be more dramatic. By-elections in April 2012 saw the revival of Myanmar’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the formal entry of its leader, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, into politics. The elections also heralded sweeping economic and political reforms such as the release of a number of political prisoners. The country has indeed come a long way from being regarded as a pariah state to now being the toast of the regional and international community. To be sure, Myanmar’s remarkable transformation has just begun. Not only has the country come out of its decades-long political and economic isolation, but it also has now become a key focus of many actors in the international community—from big powers like the United States and European Union that had earlier shunned Myanmar to international organizations and multinational corporations, all attracted by the promise of a richly endowed country with the potential to become one of Asia’s rising economies. Amid the euphoria, however, are pressing questions about whether the country’s political transition is indeed irreversible and whether its economic reforms will succeed. Among those who have voiced caution is Aung San Suu Kyi, who in her meeting with President Barack Obama in November 2012 warned of the need to guard against being “lured by [the] mirage of success.” As Myanmar continues along the path of change, there will be no one more keenly interested in its success than the ASEAN neighbors that have stood by the country in good times and in bad. Thus, as Myanmar takes over the helm of ASEAN, it is an opportune time to examine the implications of its chairmanship for ASEAN. The...


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