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Don't push Myanmar into a corner

By Verghese Mathews - posted Thursday, 9 June 2005

The ongoing debate and speculation about whether Myanmar would, or should, assume the chairmanship of ASEAN next year has, in a way, served to highlight again the rich and sometimes threatening diversity of the regional grouping and its unique style of arriving at consensus.

In this context, there have been commentaries ad nauseam since ASEAN's membership increased to ten - that it had become a two-tiered grouping of the "more developed" original six (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) and the newer 'struggling' countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (often known as the CLMV nations). The message here was that the divide would contribute to greater administrative difficulties, including hammering out consensus.

The "two-tier" description is fair comment and remains a challenge that is being tackled by the grouping on the basis that the divide cannot, and should not, be a permanent feature. To this end, ASEAN leaders adopted the then-Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's November 2000 proposal - Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) - a package of practical ways and means to close the development gap.


Singapore, for example, opened training centres in the four CLMV countries in 2001 and has been providing tailored empowerment courses identified by the respective host countries. The other older members likewise have their own programs.

While much of the reward accruing from the IAI programmes will be seen only in the long term, it is being accelerated by the great enthusiasm and demand for education and training in the CLMV countries, which are themselves as development-oriented as the older six countries.

However, what is sometimes missed out is that the ASEAN divide is more than merely economic or developmental. The Myanmar controversy has highlighted a difference in the mindset within the grouping, maybe even leading to a thin fissure line, with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam demonstrating a greater empathy for Myanmar than the other member countries.

Here again, this is neither surprising nor can be wished away quickly given the historical baggage of the four countries and the difficulties they have individually encountered in warding off, what they perceive to be, foreign interference in their internal affairs.

No doubt, like the rest of ASEAN, the CLMV countries recognise the dilemma faced if Myanmar assumes the chairmanship next year- it will not be helpful for ASEAN.

At the same time, if Myanmar were forced out of the chairmanship against its will, it would also not be a desired outcome and would be a "bad precedent". However, despite these practical regional considerations, the CLMV countries are particularly outraged by external pressure (read Western governments) now disingenuously using the back door of ASEAN's rotating chairmanship to pursue an objective in Myanmar. What hitherto could not be achieved by external pressure against an individual member country would now appear possible because of a weak spot in ASEAN's organisational structure.


It was, therefore, not at all surprising that the well-honed survival instincts of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos immediately detected areas of concern and threats for themselves in what was happening to Myanmar.

Many questions rushed to the fore as these countries themselves had nagging internal problems that have been externalised - treatment of minority ethnic groups, human rights violations or broad governance issues: Has ASEAN cohesiveness weakened? Can a member country under external pressure depend on ASEAN support if it is its turn to chair the regional grouping? Is ASEAN membership still premium? And, more importantly, which country will be next?

These are valid questions if you are weak and dependent on foreign direct investment and donor assistance for survival.

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Article edited by Patrick O'Neill.
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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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Institute of South East Asian Studies

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