Current News

Myanmar and the politics of Asean slogans

By Kavi Chongkittavron 
September 1, 2013
BANGKOK: After a series of closed door
discussions and numerous rephrasing by policy-makers 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
Naypidaw’s agenda and priorities when it takes up the grouping’s helm 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 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 South-East 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 spurring common actions among the Asean members was 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 G-20, 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 the “Asean Way” had yet to sink in.
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, Naypidaw 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 topical 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 next
year’s Asean agenda, especially the situation in Rakhine State and the fate of
Rohingya 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 Rohingya issue, which
was later cancelled.
Concerned Asean countries affected by the
influx of Rohingya prefer a regional solution.
Much is at stake for Myanmar, especially its
manner in handling sensitive issues with transnational and international
impacts. It will serve as a barometer for the depth and scope of its ongoing
three-year reforms.
As a latecomer, Myanmar is learning from the
Asean experience. A few years after Indonesia turned democratic in 1998, it
opened up and discussed internal problems with Asean.
At the recent Asean annual meeting, Jakarta
reported voluntarily the human rights condition to the Asean Intergovernmental
Commission for Human Rights.
Myanmar was relieved after the deadline for the
Asean Community was later postponed to Dec 31, 2015.
That means the chair has an additional year to
prepare the grounds for the Asean Community realisation, in which Malaysia will
take charge. As the theme suggests, Myanmar now is confident that it can be a
catalyst for the strengthening of community-building in Asean.