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Myanmar no longer ASEAN's problem child

November 17, 2011 - Bali (Indonesia)

ASEAN is all set to set to endorse Myanmar's bid to chair regional meetings in 2014. ASEAN chairmanship rotates annually in alphabetical order among its 10 countries and hosts summits that bring together leaders from Asian countries as well as the U.S., China, India and Russia.

Human rights activists and the United States had criticized the proposal to hand over the ASEAN chairmanship to Myanmar.

However member nations expressed the opinion that Myanmar's recent reform moves deserve to be rewarded with not just the ASEAN's chairmanship but also the opportunity to host the East Asia Summit in 2014. It will be interesting to see if the American president would attend the EA Summit.

Myanmar with a population of 60 million is among the poorest of ASEAN's member nations and its democratic record is tarred. It has been an international pariah and seen as a problem child of the ASEAN group.

It was forced to renounce the ASEAN presidency in 2006 due to intense criticism over its human rights record. The country has over 2000 political prisoners as on date, according to some news reports.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said, "They have taken positive steps toward democratization. We should encourage them more by letting them host the meeting."

Myanmar this week released some 200 dissidents from prison last month Aung San Suu Kyi marked one year since her release last week. She expressed cautious optimism over the events in the past year terming them as "encouraging."

She said, "I think we are looking at the road and we need faith and daring to proceed along this path."

A statement from the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) said the association welcome recent changes in Burma but remains concerned about ongoing military conflicts with ethnic groups and the relatively slow pace of political reform.

They said that despite the recent democratic moves President Thein Sein had shown a lack of willingness to undertake genuine reforms such as releasing political prisoners or ending armed conflict with ethnic groups, the statement said.

Since 2006, Myanmar has held its first elections in 20 years, released Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and eased some restrictions on the media. It also suspended work on a controversial Chinese dam despite the potential of antagonizing its closest ally.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was quoted by one news agency, as saying: "It's not about the past, it's about the future, what leaders are doing now," he told reporters. "We're trying to ensure the process of change continues."

Several Western nations and human rights groups, however, say they want more evidence that things have really changed in autocratic Myanmar.

The government the country is nominally civilian, and led by a former general who is yet to open full, meaningful dialogue with the opposition.

Though some political prisoners have been released in recent months, many more remain behind bars.There is also conern that about the continuing persecution of ethnic minorities in the country.

"Burma (Myanmar's earlier name) has long been a millstone around ASEAN's neck, and that won't be removed by making it the chair in 2014," Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, was quoted, as saying.

It's more important that the regional grouping set clear benchmarks for reform and closely monitor progress, she added.

Opposition leader Suu Kyi has given cautious backing to the reforms, but hasn't appeared overly supportive of Myanmar's bid to head the regional grouping.

She says that giving the chairmanship of ASEAN to Myanmar in 2014 is not as important as improving the lives of its people.

The US. and other Western countries continue to put pressure on Myanmar to undertake further reforms. Before arriving in Bali from Darwin, Australia, President Barack Obama said that he would use his Asia-Pacific trip to nudge the Myanmar government towards undertaking more rapid reforms.

Obama said that he would like to see further concrete progress in Burma to convince him and other countries in the West to to ease political and economic sanctions imposed against the old military junta for its repressive policies.

He referred to Burma as one of the challenges facing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the world.

ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. By Smita Prakash


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