Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed that Myanmar will chair the group in 2014, a move they say will provide further momentum for reform in the former military dictatorship.
“All leaders are in agreement that significant developments have taken place in Myanmar and those changes have made it more conducive for Myanmar to carry this responsibility,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters in Bali today. “We are trying to ensure that the process of change continues, the momentum is maintained.”
Myanmar President Thein Sein has released hundreds of political prisoners, legalized unions and stopped censoring media outlets like the BBC since taking power nine months ago in an election that ended rule by a series of military regimes since 1962. Threats of boycotts from western nations prompted Myanmar to forgo Asean’s rotating chairmanship in 2005.
“The prospect of Myanmar’s chairmanship in 2014 will more than any other decision put that country under the spotlight of international attention,” Natalegawa said after Asean leaders met at a summit.
Officials from the U.S. and Europe, which impose financial and economic sanctions on Myanmar that are renewed annually, have made more visits to the country in recent months as they review punitive measures. Derek Mitchell, a special U.S. envoy to Myanmar, completed his third visit to the country in three months on Nov. 4, and U.K. International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell concluded a visit today.
‘Signs of Progress’
“I am making this unprecedented visit because there are tentative -- but real -- signs of progress in Burma, which I welcome,” the U.K.’s Mitchell said in a statement today, referring to the country by its former name. “But my message is clear: we need urgent further progress.”
Mitchell met today with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released a year ago after spending 15 of the previous 21 years in confinement. She has called for the government to release 525 political prisoners who are still locked up.
“What is more important than the chairmanship of Asean is that the lives of the people of our country should improve visibly,” Suu Kyi told reporters in Yangon on Nov. 14, according to an audio recording of the press conference posted on the Burma Today news website. She has met with Thein Sein and said “he’s very genuine in his desire for the process of democratization.”
Myanmar’s 60 million people are the poorest in Asia, earning about $1.15 per day on average, about a tenth of per capita income in neighboring Thailand, according to Asean statistics. In recent years, China, India and Thailand have invested in Myanmar’s ports, railways and oil and gas pipelines to gain access to natural resources.
Asean’s chairman, which rotates annually in alphabetical order, hosts summits that bring together leaders from Asia’s biggest powers and other nations, including the U.S., China, India and Russia. The bloc of 591 million people, rich in energy resources and situated around sea lanes vital to world trade, aims to form an economic community modeled on the European Union without a common currency by 2015.
Myanmar is showing “the first stirrings of change in decades,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters Nov. 10 in Honolulu, Hawaii. “Should the government pursue genuine and lasting reform for the benefits of its citizens, it will find a partner in the United States.”
U.S. sanctions ban new investment, imports from Myanmar and transfer of funds into the country. Europe’s restrictive measures are less severe, including bans on weapons sales and mining investments.