Bloomberg News

Myanmar Poised to Helm Asean in 2014 in Sign of Political Change

November 16, 2011

Nov. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Southeast Asian leaders are set to endorse Myanmar’s bid to chair regional meetings in 2014, reflecting a shift in international opinion on the former military dictatorship as it embarks on democratic reforms.

Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations “all recognize the important and significant developments taking place in Myanmar,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters yesterday in Bali. “The idea of Myanmar chairing Asean in 2014 for many represents part of that momentum building.”

Asean’s leaders will make the final decision when they meet tomorrow, he said. U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao are set to join them this week for the 18- country East Asia Summit.

The move represents a turnaround from 2005, when Myanmar forfeited the rotating chairmanship after western nations that maintain sanctions against the country threatened to boycott Asean’s meetings. The U.S. and Europe are now reviewing punitive measures against Myanmar after it held an election last year, eased censorship and freed several hundred political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Asean has always found Myanmar difficult, so now there is a sense of relief,” said Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “The State Department might welcome it because it proves their case that it’s right to engage.”

Economic Community

Asean’s chairman, which rotates annually in alphabetical order among its 10 countries, hosts summits that bring together leaders from Asia’s biggest powers and other nations, including the U.S., China, India and Russia. The bloc of 591 million people, rich in energy resources and situated around sea lanes vital to world trade, aims to form an economic community modeled on the European Union without a common currency by 2015.

“What is more important than the chairmanship of Asean is that the lives of the people of our country should improve visibly,” Suu Kyi told reporters in Yangon yesterday, according to an audio recording of the press conference posted on the Burma Today news website. “We are looking at the opening to the road to democracy,” she added.

Myanmar’s 60 million people are the poorest in Asia, earning about $1.15 per day on average, about a tenth of per capita income in neighboring Thailand, according to Asean statistics. In recent years, China, India and Thailand have invested in Myanmar’s ports, railways and oil and gas pipelines to gain access to natural resources.

Sea Port

Italian-Thai Development Pcl, Thailand’s biggest construction company, signed a contract worth $8.6 billion last year with Myanmar’s government to build a deep-sea port and industrial estate. China National Petroleum Corp. started building oil and gas pipelines across the country, and India approved plans for Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and GAIL India Ltd. to invest $1.3 billion in a natural gas project.

Myanmar has sought advice from the International Monetary Fund to end its multiple exchange rate system and is modernizing its banking system, central bank governor U Hla Tun said Sept. 23. President Thein Sein has released hundreds of political prisoners, legalized unions and stopped censoring media outlets like the BBC since taking power nine months ago in an election that ended rule by a series of military regimes since 1962.

“We do feel today the situation is far more conducive than before,” Natalegawa said.

Increasing Visits

Officials from the U.S. and Europe, which impose financial and economic sanctions on Myanmar that are renewed annually, have made more visits to the country in recent months. Derek Mitchell, a special envoy to Myanmar, completed his third visit to the country in three months on Nov. 4.

Myanmar is showing “the first stirrings of change in decades,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on Nov. 10 in Honolulu, Hawaii. “Should the government pursue genuine and lasting reform for the benefits of its citizens, it will find a partner in the United States.”

U.S. sanctions ban new investment, imports from Myanmar and transfer of funds into the country. Europe’s restrictive measures are less severe, including bans on weapons sales and mining investments.

On Nov. 5, Thein Sein changed a law on political parties that allowed them to criticize the constitution, contest in only one parliamentary seat and include prisoners as members, opposition news agency Mizzima reported. Suu Kyi’s party, which won a 1990 election that was nullified by the ruling junta, will meet on Nov. 18 to decide whether to formally register and stand in by-elections after boycotting last year’s vote.

Suu Kyi’s Release

Myanmar authorities released Suu Kyi last year, a week after Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, backed by the former ruling junta, won about 80 percent of seats in the election. The military retains a quarter of seats in the two houses of Parliament, according to the constitution.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of the past 22 years in confinement, called for the government to release 525 political prisoners who are still locked up. She has met several times with Thein Sein and praised him when speaking to reporters on Nov. 14, saying “he’s very genuine in his desire for the process of democratization.”

--Editors: Nicholas Wadhams, Patrick Harrington

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net


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