Monday, August 26, 2013

Myanmar and the politics of Asean slogans

Publication Date : 26-08-2013

After a series of closed door discussions and numerous rephrasing by policymakers including foreign experts, Myanmar has finally picked the theme "Moving forward in unity towards a peaceful and prosperous Community" for its engagement with Asean next year. Like previous Asean chairs, the title reflects Naypyidaw's agenda and priorities when it takes up the grouping's chairmanship in 127 days.

The 10-word slogan, the longest ever in Asean history, was personally given a nod by President Thein Sein recently. Earlier a few versions were put forward for consideration focusing on the centrality of Asean, economic cooperation and community building as well as political and economic reforms taking place in the past two years. The chosen theme was a neutral and encompassing. "It is very comprehensive," said a senior Asean official, who attended the Asean Economic Ministerial meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, where Myanmar made the official announcement.

After the Asean leaders endorsed the 2014 chair in November 2011, Myanmar has studied the themes and performances of each Asean chair since 2008 when the Asean Charter was adopted. That year, Singapore chaired Asean with an impressive theme "One Asean at the Heart of Dynamic Asia," echoing the island's desire to increase the grouping's profile beyond Southeast Asia.

Thailand succeeded Singapore with a major task to implement the new charter. Bangkok was true to its slogan, "Asean Charter for Asean People," with packed programmes of civil society groups' participation, which scared a few Asean leaders away. Then came Vietnam with a simple theme: "Towards the Asean Community: From Vision to Action." It did not take long for the chair to find out that spurning common actions among the Asean members were an uphill task.

Indonesia took over Vietnam's chair with a shoo-in goal, "Asean Community in a Global Community of Nations." As the only Asean member in the G20, Indonesia wanted to be the Asean voice among the world's most economically advanced countries. Asean's position was uplifted. But it was temporary.

Last year, Cambodia's messianic theme of "One Community, One Destiny" had the opposite effect. As the last country to join Asean in 1999, the practice of Asean Way had yet to sink-in. But Cambodia should be credited for narrowing development gaps among the old and new Asean members but very few people took notice.

"Our People, Our Future Together" is the current theme advocated by the chair, Brunei. True to form and substance, every move the chair initiated is based on consultations and consensus. The remaining four months would be smooth paving the way for a conservative but holistic approach by the next Asean chair.

Myanmar has good reasons to be cautious with the role. First, Naypyidaw will serve as the chair for the first time--16 years after its admission. It skipped the 2005 slot due to domestic crisis along with pressure from the Asean colleagues. It does not want to adopt an "overtly" forwarding looking tone as it could sound a bit patronising. Second, the theme must be tropical enough to reflect norms and values as well as the inspiration of Asean and its peoples. In this case, Myanmar had to forego the so-called non-Asean elements related to their reforms. Finally, it must also resonate well with the situation at home.

The chair's domestic condition would certainly dominate the next year's Asean agenda, especially the situation in Rakhline State and the fate of Rohinya people. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei would raise the issue. This time the chair cannot get away scot free. Myanmar turned down the planned Asean special meeting on in October to discuss Rohinya issue, which was later cancelled. Concerned Asean countries affected by the influx of Rohinya prefer a regional solution.

Much is at stake for Myanmar especially its manner in handing sensitive issue with transnational and international impacts. It will serve as a barometer of the depth and scope of the ongoing three-year reforms. As a late comer, Myanmar is learning from the Asean experience. After Indonesia turned democratic in 1998, a few years later the country opened up and discussed internal problems with Asean. At the recent Asean annual meeting, Jakarta reported voluntarily on its human rights condition to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights.

Myanmar was relieved after the deadline for the Asean Community was postponed to Dec 31, 2015. That means the chair has an additional year to prepare grounds for the AEC realisation. As the theme suggested, Myanmar now is confident that it can be a catalyst for the strengthening of community-building in Asean.

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