Editorial: A more hopeful ASEAN
Paper Edition | Page: 6
Tensions in the South China Sea will evidently mark the ASEAN annual meeting in Phnom Penh this week. However, without any intention of belittling the danger of a military build-up in the resource-rich waters, the meeting offers a wonderful opportunity to answer staunch critics and point out the encouraging progress of reform in Myanmar.
When the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is held on July 12, key global players will also be present, including the US, Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the EU. International media will likely focus on the South China Sea conflict. The North Korean nuclear threat will also become another key issue during the “confidence building measure” gathering.
China and the Philippines have overlapping claims to territories in the South China Sea, along with other claimants such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Beijing and Manila are intensifying their “megaphone” diplomacy with the latter apparently trying to remind the world of its close relationship with the US — its ally and former colonial master. Besides the South China Sea conflict, the North Korean nuclear threat will also be another key issue discussed in the meeting.
ASEAN is also in the final stage of transorming itself a single market. However, amid the collapse of the economy of several EU members, enthusiasm to follow the EU’s footsteps may into decline.
But aside from the internal divisions that may exist, the meeting in Phnom Penh is an excellent place for the foreign ministers of ASEAN’s member states to point out to the international community the regional grouping’s endurance and patience in persuading and convincing Myanmar’s leaders to end their brutal oppression against their people and their isolation from the outside world.
In the 1980s, Cambodia was ruined by a prolonged civil war between the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge and Hun Sen, supported by Vietnam. In early 1990s, peace returned to Cambodia thanks to ASEAN’s tireless diplomatic activities, in which Indonesia played acrucial role.
It is very hard — even for the staunchest critics of ASEAN — to deny the claims of ASEAN’s leaders that
their often criticized policy has worked very well on Myanmar.
So when Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin attends the annual ministerial ASEAN gathering in Phnom Penh, it will be the first time in more than a decade that his country is no longer viewed with hostility or tension.
Myanmar’s foreign minister will receive a much warmer welcome from his ASEAN colleagues and the dialogue partners of the regional grouping, like the US, EU, Japan, Australia, India, China and South Korea.
This is a big relief for Myanmar President Thein Sein, whose brave decision to end his country’s status as the world’s top pariah state clearly has resulted in positive changes, though many remain extremely cautious about the general’s real motives and commitment.
ASEAN leaders have promised the summit will be held in Myanmar in 2014, when the country is able to meet the demands of its own people for a better state.
Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is also positive on the ongoing developments in her country, emphasizing that, “We don’t want to be shackled by the past. We want to use the past to build the future.”
ASEAN is obligated to ensure democratic reform is sustainable in the impoverished state. But the leaders should also remember that other ASEAN countries have serious democratic deficits. Thailand, once a champion of democracy in the region, is still fragile and it may be a matter of time before military flexes its muscles again against the civilian government.
We hope that this ASEAN annual gathering will produce more concrete results. Reduced hostility in the South China Sea is one expected outcome from the regional, and also global, defense and security dialogue in Phnom Penh.
ASEAN has shown encouraging progress in many fields, and the improvements in Myanmar are one of the group’s most significant achievements.