How ASEAN is adapting to a democratic Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi will land in Bangkok for the first time since her triumphant 2015 election victory on June 23. Her Thai military hosts know something about elections: They tend not to respect their outcomes.

As Myanmar’s democratic icon knows well, if you want to do high-level diplomatic business in Southeast Asia then you need a strong stomach for authoritarianism.

Since its formation in 1967, the weight of influence in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has rested with the region’s dictatorships. Some are more huggable than others.

At one extreme is Laos: uncompromising in its authoritarian instincts. It happens that Vientiane is chairing ASEAN this year. Whatever the merits of its hospitality, it is hardly a bastion of civic participation or human rights. Tragically, its isolation, poverty and lack of enmities, means that nobody tends to notice.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Philippines, where a rambunctious democratic culture has fused to the needs of entrenched economic elites. Its recent elections catapulted a provincial mayor to the presidency. By Southeast Asian standards, Philippine politics is unpredictable and, therefore, dangerous.

The country is the 2017 chair of ASEAN, which means it will have a little more influence over the grouping’s direction. This leadership matters for Manila’s powerbrokers while they continue to wrangle with China’s communist leaders over the South China Sea.

On this issue, ASEAN is split. The key Southeast Asian claimants to adjacent waters — the Philippines and Vietnam — want their regional peers to support them against the Chinese.

Cambodia has been an ardent backer of the Chinese position. Most others are relatively agnostic, although they appreciate the risks of antagonizing the big players in Beijing. It is a careful balance.

Such balance is part of the culture of ASEAN, where inconvenient issues get shunted to the side. Everybody has a big enough load of tricky domestic politics to deal with that there is no advantage in meddling in each other’s business.

Protests against one-party states, military regimes and corrupt tycoons are par for the course. There is no single formula for political and economic control, and yet the region has a remarkably stable set of regimes.

For example, the United Malays National Organisation has been in charge of Malaysia’s ruling alliance since independence from British rule in 1957. Likewise in Singapore, the People’s Action Party has dominated the political scene since even before independence in 1965.

In Vietnam and Laos, communist parties have ruled since the 1970s. In 1984 Brunei’s sultan read his country’s declaration of independence, but has kept a tight grip on power ever since. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been a major figure going back to the 1980s.

Indeed, the only Southeast Asian countries where the leading political figures have changed with any regularity are Indonesia and the Philippines. In both cases, long-term military dictatorships had a stranglehold for decades and were only toppled by popular uprisings.

Thailand, of course, is the other country where mass protests and free elections have sometimes shifted the balance toward democratic interests. But whoever won the popular vote, the army and monarchy have maintained a veto on significant political or social change. Since the coup of May 2014, Thailand is once again an old-style military dictatorship.

A democratic foreign policy?

It is in this unpromising regional landscape that Myanmar now needs to find its way. It helps that Suu Kyi enjoys such high regard around the world.

She is certainly the only foreign minister in ASEAN who is a household name. The rest are part of an ever-changing cast of characters, lurching from one banquet to another. Marty Natalegawa, from Indonesia, and Surin Pitsuwan, from Thailand, are among few earlier examples that tried to break the mold.

Suu Kyi, on the other hand, will never fit ASEAN’s normal expectations. For a start, she holds the reins of the foreign ministry while juggling her duties as state counselor and minister in the President’s Office.

Nobody can doubt her sincere desire to take on responsibilities “above the president,” as she put it. Nor should we consider that her tenure will necessarily be brief. Assuming that her health holds up, Suu Kyi could have at least a decade at the top of Myanmar society.

For the longstanding elites running things elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Myanmar, as a nascent democracy, presents some interlocking threats and opportunities.

At the top of the list is the possibility that with Suu Kyi in charge, her foreign ministry embraces a values-driven regional policy.

Of course, Myanmar will still look to work with all the ASEAN members, but it will hardly be a surprise if it ultimately embraces the other countries that regularly hold free and fair elections.

In places where authoritarian regimes are well-entrenched, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government may also offer inspiration to local dissidents. For decades, Suu Kyi and her team were locked out of regional forums and given no chance to participate in the contest for power.

Will this influence their attitude toward the strongman rulers in Hanoi, Vientiane, Phnom Penh or Bandar Seri Begawan? What about Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur?

For now, Myanmar will abide by the region’s established templates, unwilling and certainly unable, to seriously rock the boat. But that could change quickly, especially if Myanmar’s internal issues begin to get resolved.

If, for instance, Myanmar consolidates a nationwide peace agreement between ethnic armed groups and the government, then it would be the biggest policy success in ASEAN for a generation. If it manages to keep up growth rates of 8% per annum then, before long, it will claim solid middle-income status.

And if constitutional reform, no matter how modest, flows smoothly into the next general election, then Myanmar will have left behind much of its grim history of dictatorial mismanagement. The prospects for Suu Kyi are enticing, and there is no doubt they will eventually reverberate in the rest of the region.

Some of that reverberation is already apparent in the waves of migrant workers returning home from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. For now, they still get replaced but that might stop one day, when the Myanmar economy is big enough and exciting enough to retain the best of its young talent.

At the same time, foreign policy players elsewhere in ASEAN have grown comfortable with Myanmar’s pariah reputation and lackluster economic performance. Across the region, policymakers should be waking up to the fact that a democratic Myanmar shifts the weight of power in ways that will count for everyone.

What matters is that if Suu Kyi can deliver on her big agenda for national transformation, then it will not just be Myanmar’s people who feel the effects.

From Luzon to Lampang, and Lombok to Lao Cai, the 625 million people of ASEAN will notice when the region’s new democracy gets its own house in order and starts to look for friends in the neighborhood.


Source: Nikkei Asian Review


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