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Asean and Myanmar, a case of missed opportunities?

Kazi Mahmood / Khmer Times Share:
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at this week's WEF in Hanoi. REUTERS

Myanmar was set to enter a new age that would have brought economic progress to the entire Asean region had the country achieved most of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

According to reports, some of Myanmar’s SDG indicators are still lagging behind those of neighbouring countries. This is impacting Asean’s own growth strategies, experts say.

Not only does the country have a quarter of its population living below the poverty line. Myanmar is also among the countries that failed to achieve the targets set out by the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which is now known as the SDGs.

According to the Poverty and Living Conditions Survey, one out of four people in Myanmar is living below the poverty line, which sets the country apart from its Asean peers.

This does not help Asean in the computation of its own GDP and on its struggle to tackle poverty within the association. It is a missed opportunity but nothing is lost, though the battle to get Myanmar on track will face multiple challenges.

Pushed away by some Asean countries on its mishandling of the Rohingya problem, Myanmar became the epicentre of a massive political problem that engulfed Asean.

With the chaos surrounding the Rohingya problem, no real opportunity on who is to blame has surfaced, despite a UN report pointing fingers towards the Burmese authorities.

Myanmar rejected claims its military and police are involved. There has been a tremendous scope of destruction, and violence and intolerance levels between the two communities in the Rakhine state are obvious.

The Rohingya problem divided the organisation, pitting Malaysia against Myanmar on the very serious issue of human rights violations against the stateless Muslims.

The recent spate of trouble on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh – whether it is the result of a ragtag group of militants attacking military and police posts or not – has gotten out of hand.

Western mainstream media spoke of a ‘hidden motive’ in the Myanmar tragedy. They seldom raise this issue, but their take on the problem hints at the pursuit of a wider agenda: That of portraying Myanmar as a violent state, despite the country’s claims that it did not start the conflict.

However, it is futile to point fingers while it is imperative for both Malaysia and Myanmar on the one side, and Asean, Myanmar and Malaysia on a broader scale, to find common grounds to stem this divisive situation.

All sides of the conflict in Myanmar should come together to find solution using well defined political tools to stop rights violations. Neither the European Union, the United States or the United Nations went down that tricky road of unifying the parties around a discussion table to solve the matter.

But, even more pressing is the matter of what has Asean done to mediate between Malaysia and Myanmar? Malaysia distanced itself from Asean’s statement on the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

While Asean was breaking apart on the issue, the Indians and the Chinese, as well as the Americans and the Europeans, were tacitly building their presence in the country.

With the backdrop of the Chinese push to tie Myanmar down in its Belt and Road Initiative, Naypyidaw remains confronted with many economic and political realities. It also has India courting it with the Mizoram project.

The Americans and Europeans are still pouring money into the country, despite veiled threats of political intervention. These threats mean the country is facing imminent foreign meddling. That could destabilise the country’s economic future and could set Asean backward with a live conflict on its hands.

But there is one way for Myanmar to weave itself out of this messy situation. That is to go back to Asean for help. And this is where Asean must rise to the occasion and play catch-up with the foreign powers with influence in Myanmar.

It is also necessary for the parties (including Asean) to use the UN’s intermediary efforts to achieve some constructive dialogue with the Burmese government. Through such efforts, there could be hope of a peaceful settlement of this intricate and complicated conflict.

An even more crucial question comes to mind: Will Asean miss the opportunity to aid the resurgence of Myanmar if its members are divided over the Rohingya issue?

And, should the entity rally itself to the cause of the Myanmar nation and offer assistance with the social integration issues on the border with Bangladesh instead of allowing its members to be torn apart?

Once again, it is Asean centrality and unity that must come to the fore ahead of geopolitical issues that would trouble Myanmar. In such troubles, foreign entities are bound to gain, while the region might end up losing.

Aung San Suu Kyi meets Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang during the WEF on ASEAN. Reuters

Rakhine’s development

But overlooking the issues with which Myanmar is plagued, there is a bigger external threat. Myanmar is the centre of attraction for both the Americans and the Europeans because of its compact geopolitical importance. It is squeezed between China and India, two rival nations competing for both attention and market share in the region.

From Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in China, to the seaport at Kyaukpyu in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, is a 1,700-plus kilometre corridor.

This area is the beneficiary of the largest single package of foreign direct investment in Myanmar in decades. This investment has China’s mark, but not to be outdone in the economic conquest of Myanmar, India has finally kicked off the construction of a 109-km road project. On completion, the project will help connect Mizoram with the Sittwe Port in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

A US-EU political intervention, possible if the Rohingya problem flares up again, will complicate Myanmar’s economic situation. It will be a blow to both China and India.

It is clear that Myanmar’s problems are not that simple nor is the Rohingya problem a simple one for the Rakhine region. Yet, it is what the West will do that should worry both Myanmar and Asean.

If the Rohingyas are subject to another round of violence it will bring the international community closer to tackling the Myanmar issue with stronger measures.

Asean cannot afford any form of foreign intervention in Myanmar. It has the moral responsibility to bring the Burmese authorities to take steps towards crisis resolution, even if it involves coordination with foreign countries and international organisations.

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