New government should not disregard Asean

13 June 2016
New government should not disregard Asean
Overview as Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders hold hands for the traditional ASEAN handshake to start the 26th ASEAN summit during the opening ceremony at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, Malaysia, April 27, 2015. Photo: EPA

Ever since the electoral triumph of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar, speculation has been growing about its foreign policy -- how much continuity and change will occur -- under the new government relative to its predecessors.
Interest has piqued as to whether Nay Pyi Taw will abandon its solid footing with China by improving ties with the West under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite the US's renewed sanctions, which are specifically targeted at cronies closely linked to the former military regime, the direction of Myanmar's foreign policy is expected to accommodate expanding investment from the West to assist the country. On the other hand, Ms Suu Kyi's visit to Beijing at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in June last year was seen as a symbolic move made by China to ensure its economic interests and diplomatic position are assured despite Myanmar's transformed political landscape.
Amid the foreign policy headlines that have focused on whether Myanmar pivots towards China or the US, Asean, the grouping of neighbouring countries that Myanmar has been participating in since 1997, is almost absent from the discussions. Nowhere to be found is the term "Asean" under the NLD's foreign policy manifesto or in the first policy brief made by Ms Suu Kyi to diplomats from Singapore, Thailand and India. Her relative lack of historically cordial relations with the leaders of the other Asean member countries begs the question of whether Aung San Suu Kyi and her new government will overlook the grouping.
There is a high likelihood that she might be somewhat sceptical about Asean. It is no secret that Ms Suu Kyi was not pleased with the limited efforts of Asean member states to support the democratic struggle in Myanmar over the years. Asean was always seen instead as a shield to protect the repressive regime. Aside from a couple of incidents when Ms Suu Kyi was attacked in 2003 and the Saffron Revolution in 2007, Asean leaders notably shied away from criticising Myanmar's military regime. The regional organisation's current shortcomings, when it comes to collective democratic shared values, might also not impress Ms Suu Kyi who is well-known as a global champion for human rights and democratic movements.
Then again, in the wake of the dynamic geopolitical environment which calls for closer cooperation with neighbouring countries in addressing economic, environment, social and security issues, diplomatic relations are more than just dogmatic political principles. Moreover, with regards to the functional cooperation in which the previous government has already committed Myanmar to activating its compliance with numerous security, social and economic agreements, the new government cannot abruptly sideline or quit the existing arrangements. A possible scenario would be to have Myanmar remain as a less active member without putting much effort into the integration process. To be fair, little is known about Asean which is viewed as an elite entity. As a result, it has always had very little exposure in the media and with the public in Myanmar, making it a low priority for political parties.
With a population of 630 million, Asean countries are attempting to stand together as a major global manufacturing and trading hub. On the political front, in order to maintain its centrality in the Asean Regional Forum and East Asia Summit, the regional bloc is working to strengthen its bargaining power among the multi-polar global actors. What happens next if the new government perceives Asean as not (so) important? Strategically, Asean is about more than foreign policy. Myanmar should do more and adapt itself as a member.
Currently, non-original Asean members, including Myanmar, have been gaining from funding opportunities from Asean's dialogue partners through the Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI) projects which aim to narrow the development gap among countries. Whether Myanmar becomes a net loser or net winner from greater regional integration will depend on the government's holistic policies and structural adjustments in public service delivery improvements, human resources development, health and infrastructure development.
Perhaps it is too early to map out the NLD government's strategic position toward Asean. About one month after his inauguration, President HtinKyaw together with Aung San Suu Kyi embarked on their first state visit to Laos -- the current chair of Asean -- where the two sides discussed deepening cooperation in areas of trade, investment, education, tourism and establishing direct flights. Ms Suu Kyi has already scheduled her second official visit to Thailand this month. The welfare of Myanmar's migrant workers and improved economic relations will be the major topics for discussion.
These official visits can be interpreted as the new government recognising the Asean rituals -- to make regional visits first before visiting non-Asean countries. Improving bilateral relations with all member countries will not be enough to have tangible practical gains in the ongoing regionalisation process.
Whether they like it or not, the new government needs to effectively carry the Asean baton handed over by former governments in the integration relay race. We will just have to wait and see how Nay Pyi Taw will take action in positioning Asean to its advantage.
Than Tha Aung works at Mekong Institute in KhonKaen, Thailand.