(Editor’s Note: The Rohingya are not officially recognized as nationals in Myanmar; they are referred to as "Bengali" by many people in Myanmar.)
The transition to democracy that is in progress in Myanmar has showcased Nay Pyi Taw’s quest to prove to the world its credentials of becoming the next Asian tiger economy. And Southeast Asia’s second largest country is endowed with abundant natural resources, only strengthening the states’ chance of joining the league. Nevertheless, though prospects are high, Myanmar faces a lot of challenges. The case of Myanmar shares many similarities with other countries moving towards democratic change and away from authoritarian governance. Myanmar is an ethnically diverse state with various regions celebrating different beliefs and culture. In this context recent tensions between the predominantly Muslim Rohingya and the country’s majority Buddhists are on the rise. Though the world has condemned acts against the Rohingya, the violence has continued, with thousands of refugees fleeing to neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh.
Myanmar is part of ASEAN, and has taken keen interest in developments in its fellow member states. And ASEAN, which traditionally staunchly opposes external involvement in the internal affairs of fellow members, created a Myanmar caucus within the grouping to deal with issues related to Myanmar. This was only common sense, as ASEAN could not risk alienating Myanmar due to its proximity and resources. Myanmar will further assume the ASEAN chair in 2014, an important year for the organization. As ASEAN moves towards forming an integrated economic community by 2015, Myanmar will have to provide the crucial push for the organization to do so. Moreover, the ASEAN chairmanship will be a test for Myanmar since opening up. The ASEAN chairmanship will be the first time Myanmar will have a chance to exhibit its ability to handle power in the International system. It will also have to take certain tough measures to uphold the already fractured image of ASEAN.
Myanmar as the head of ASEAN will also have to deal with its internal issues in a comprehensive way. It cannot let consolidation issues affect relations with neighbors. For example, the subsequent influx of Rohingya’s fleeing conflict led to thousands showing up at Thailand’s doorstep, where they were eventually refused entry – an act in violation of not only International Law but also the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights. The challenges of handling such controversial and problematic issues within a greater ASEAN context will have to be dealt with tactfully by Myanmar. Concerning the violence between the Rohingya and Buddhists, Myanmar should take strict action to ensure that it can quell the violence and showcase itself as being a worthy and rightful recipient of the ASEAN chairmanship. There is little that fellow ASEAN member states can do in order to quell the dispute; the responsibility rests firmly with Nay Pyi Taw. If this issue is not dealt with, it could result in another division between neighboring states such as experienced by Thailand and Cambodia surrounding the Preah Vihear temple complex.
This warrants the question whether ASEAN should look beyond its traditional policy of non-intervention and assist member states in more dynamic and constructive ways. The case of the Rohingya is especially important, as it will have a ripple effect on populations in majority Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia and countries with restive regions such as Thailand and The Philippines. In fact, the issue has already started to impact other countries of the region. Two suspects were detained in Indonesia in a plot to bomb Myanmar’s embassy in Jakarta in protest over the lack of action over the issue. Hence, there needs to be a concerted effort on part of states in the region in dealing with this issue.
Another important issue that will seem to linger in 2014 is the issue of the South China Sea. China, a key player in Myanmar, may use its influence by exerting pressure to not allow discussions on the issue. Though Myanmar may have snubbed China in the case of the Myitsone dam, China’s investments in the country remain significant thanks to years of Western-led sanctions on Myanmar. In the current context, as Myanmar continues to open up its markets for more competition, there is both a chance that China’s influence on Myanmar will lessen and that Beijing will increase its presence in Myanmar as it is a key state for Chinese strategic purposes. Further, reforms in the military will enable Myanmar to take steps to avoid over-dependence from China.
As Myanmar prepares to lead ASEAN, it will also have to make internal changes that are crucial for the country in the long term. It should seek cooperation from countries that have been through similar political transitions, such as Indonesia. Pro-democracy activism should also continue as there needs to be more momentum to sustain reforms.
Aung San Suu Kyi also needs to move away from the silence she has held over the violence in Rakhine state and work through the government to ensure that there is a peaceful transition in the country. As for ASEAN, it needs to work with leaders in Nay Pyi Taw to ensure that Myanmar does not become a burden but rather an opportunity. Further, in the interest of promoting a balanced approach, more cooperation in Myanmar’s affairs should be encouraged among other players such as India and the United States.
Myanmar should be open to face the challenges that a complex system will bring upon it. It should push for a stronger framework to eradicate other problems that have plagued the country in the past such as drug trafficking and the use of its territory by extremist elements from neighbouring countries. Though the military has cracked down on most of the extremist groups that have created havoc in India’s northeast region, it will surely resurface if Myanmar is unable to consolidate conflict in its various regions; and Myanmar’s actions can strengthen ASEAN’s policies on such issues.
Myanmar has long been regarded as a bridge between the two great civilizations of India and China. Its role in security and stability directly impact India, China and ASEAN. Hence, ASEAN should work closely to integrate Myanmar with both these countries, giving it crucial guidance into effectively working the ASEAN agenda of balancing extra-regional presence in the region. This will help ASEAN maintain its centrality and the delicate balance in Southeast Asia that keeps fortune in the region alive. Within this context, the ASEAN chairmanship will be a crucial test for Myanmar’s own move towards democracy and prosperity.
The author is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, India. His working thesis is entitled ‘Extra Regional Powers and the Geopolitics of Southeast Asia: A Case Study of ASEAN’. His interests include ASEAN, the regional dynamics of Southeast Asia and Indian Foreign Policy towards Southeast Asia.