In November 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama made a stop in Myanmar before attending an ASEAN summit in Cambodia – the first time a sitting U.S. president had visited either country. While Obama’s appearance in Yangon represented the growing, if cautious, international recognition of Myanmar’s moves toward reform and engagement with the world, White House staff made it clear that Obama would not have come to Phnom Penh had it not been hosting the summit as 2012 ASEAN chair. In a brief, tense meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Obama called out Cambodia’s numerous human rights failings. During the summit, Cambodia came under fire for hampering civil society meetings, as impoverished residents, threatened with eviction to make way for airport expansion, painted “SOS” on their roofs in an appeal to foreign leaders.
As Myanmar prepares to take on the 2014 ASEAN chairmanship, it would do well to learn from Cambodia’s 2012 experience if it hopes to continue improving its reputation. From Cambodia, Myanmar could learn “not a lot of good things, but at least they could learn what to avoid,” Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said recently with a laugh. Like many, Virak is optimistic that Myanmar will do its best to avoid a chairmanship like Cambodia’s rather infamous tenure. But it is worth considering exactly how Myanmar might achieve this aim given its similarly low levels of development, ongoing issues with repression and human rights violations, and strong Chinese economic influence.
Prior to Obama’s November 2012 visit, Cambodia had already drawn plenty of criticism for its obstruction during an ASEAN ministerial meeting of discussion about the South China Sea, where China has overlapping claims with multiple ASEAN members. The impasse led to the group’s failure, for the first time in ASEAN’s more than four decades of existence, to issue a joint statement at the meeting’s conclusion. Other ASEAN countries and observers accused Cambodia of acting under the influence of China, a major donor. At the same meeting, Myanmar President Thein Sein and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met to discuss renewed foreign investment in Myanmar – their second ever meeting, following their first in Naypyidaw the previous November.
These concurrent events demonstrated the way in which Myanmar’s reputation has inched up against Cambodia’s since Naypyidaw began reforms in 2011. Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to Myanmar President Thein Sein, recently asserted that Myanmar is now more open than Cambodia when it comes to freedom of the media, civil society, and elections. This was by most accounts an exaggeration. But in spite of ongoing concerns about ethnic violence and abuse of power, Myanmar’s international image has largely trended upward recently, while Cambodia’s has remained consistently poor. This past year, Myanmar passed Cambodia on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, making Cambodia the lowest-ranking ASEAN member, tied for 160th place in the study of 177 countries.
Myanmar showcased its re-entry into the international community by hosting the World Economic Forum in June and then, for the first time in over 40 years, the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, which have just wrapped up in Naypyidaw. But it will be Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship that will really give the country a chance to highlight its political progress. Internally, Myanmar’s reforms are threatened by ongoing ethnic conflict – particularly violence and discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims – as well as political obstacles. The country’s 2008 constitution currently reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military and would bar those with foreign spouses or children, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, from running for president in the upcoming 2015 elections.
When it comes to ASEAN, however, Myanmar has indicated that it will do its best to meet regional standards as chair. Myanmar’s director general for ASEAN Affairs, Aung Lynn, has said that Myanmar has carefully observed past ASEAN summits and will work closely in the coming year with other members on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, a long-time goal of countries like the Philippines whose claims overlap China’s. Myanmar set up a group of experts and officials in January to study the matter ahead of its chairmanship.
Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said that because Myanmar wants to continue to benefit from renewed international rapprochement and investment, it will likely do its best, unlike Cambodia, to appear as an independent ASEAN chair and an “honest broker” for the South China Sea issue. He observed that while the 2013 chair, the developed and stable though not democratic Brunei, was expected to be a competent host, the apparent commitment to balance is more notable in Myanmar, which will be chairing ASEAN for the first time.
“I am very impressed with Myanmar’s diplomats,” Thayer said. “They see it as in their interest to reflect what ASEAN wants, but are also aware of huge Chinese pressures bearing down on them.” Due to Myanmar’s need to balance these pressures, Thayer predicted that Myanmar “will follow ASEAN’s line on the South China Sea, but it’s not going to be a priority.” It may not need to be, he said, given that the dispute now is moving – albeit very slowly – through certain diplomatic and legal channels. In Brunei, China agreed to hold official talks with ASEAN on a formal code of conduct to govern the waters. Thailand, as the coordinating country for China-ASEAN relations, will continue to be largely responsible for overseeing negotiations of the code. The Philippines has brought a case accusing China of encroachment to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – a move rejected by China – but the court may well not rule until after the end of 2014.
The main development that could cause the issue to flare up again and affect Myanmar’s chairmanship, Thayer said, would be if China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea, as it did in late November over an area of the East China Sea that overlaps with Japanese and South Korean claims. Given concerns that China may make such a move, and strategic shifts by Tokyo and Washington toward the region, Myanmar will face increased pressure to not appear to side with China in maritime matters, as Cambodia did. Analysts stress the limits of Myanmar’s power as chair, but they say it would do well to continue with the balanced approach it began alongside other reforms in 2011 with the apparent aim of reducing economic and strategic dependence on China.
“The lesson for Myanmar here is to respect ASEAN tradition, which is to take tiny little diplomatic steps without creating political friction among other ASEAN members, and to know its strategic limits,” said Peter Tan Keo, an independent analyst who focuses on ASEAN. “It would behoove the country to understand its role in stewarding issues, not to stifle them for its own strategic gains or interests, as was clearly the case with Cambodia.” Myanmar, like Laos and Cambodia, could ill-afford to be uncooperative given that it is “knee-deep in debt and heavily dependent on foreign aid,” he said. “Rather, it must continue building trust and reciprocity with key strategic partners within and outside of ASEAN, and that includes authenticating the inclusionary voices of human rights and civil society groups.”