As a decision point draws near, ASEAN members must carefully consider the potential costs and benefits of allowing Burma to assume the chair of the organization.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) continues to delay a decision on whether to allow Burma to assume the chairmanship of their organization in 2014 under an alphabetical rotating system. Indonesian Foreign Minister, Dr. R.M. Marty M. Natalegawa, told reporters over the weekend in Bali that ASEAN foreign ministers continue to observe Burma’s political landscape and have deferred a decision on the chairmanship question to a later date.
In 2006, Burma passed on its opportunity to chair ASEAN in response to political pressure over its military junta-led government and criticism of its human rights record. The Burmese government has made a formal request to chair ASEAN in 2014 and has undertaken a charm offensive to improve its prospects, briefing ASEAN foreign ministers on political progress since national elections were held this past November. According to a BBC report, Western states rejected the elections as neither free nor fair. Laos is presently the only ASEAN member to offer public support for Burma’s ASEAN chairmanship bid.
A Burmaese chairmanship of ASEAN remains a thorny issue for an organization which continues to strive to raise its international stature. ASEAN continues to struggle to deal effectively with a lingering border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. Moreover, Burma’s chairmanship remains a test of ASEAN’s original premise that granting Burma membership in the organization would serve as a catalyst for democratic reforms. Some ASEAN members remain concerned that denying Burma the opportunity to serve as chair could prompt Rangoon to back away reform efforts as well as push Burma closer to China. Although not a member of ASEAN, China has expressed public support for Burma’s quest to assume the chair.
ASEAN members also are concerned over a likely negative U.S. reaction to a Burmese chairmanship at the same time several ASEAN members are seeking to strengthen ties with the United States to hedge against continued aggressive Chinese maritime activities. While attending the ASEAN Regional Forum, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Burma to further democratic reforms, release political prisoners, and address lingering questions surrounding a suspected nascent nuclear program.
[Carolyn Leddy held senior positions with the U.S. Department of State and the National Security Council under the George W. Bush administration. She was a 2009-2010 Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Ltd. International Affairs Fellow in Japan and Visiting Fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo.]
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