Give Myanmar a break and let them host the summit

Give Myanmar a break and let them host the summit

AT its latest summit in Jakarta over the weekend, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations deferred a decision about whether to accept Myanmar’s request to host the 2014 summit.

That honour is slated to go to Laos, but it has happily offered to step aside and let Myanmar take the chair if other members agree.

It appears that most do, although some are worried about negative reactions from the association’s dialogue partners.

In the United States, for instance, the State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington would object because of Myanmar’s “poor human rights record”.

Strangely, the US did not object on these grounds last year when authoritarian Vietnam hosted the ASEAN summit.

Nor did it demand that Hanoi release all political prisoners, cease repressing ethnic and religious groups, and embark on a genuine transition to multiparty democracy.

So perhaps it should shut up about this perfectly reasonable request from Myanmar’s newly elected foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

After all, when, in the 1990s, ASEAN agreed to admit Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, it did so in the spirit of welcoming them as eventual full and equal members.

In that context, Myanmar, as a fully-fledged member, has every right to take its turn hosting one of the group’s summits.

Of course, it is true that the new members had a negative impact on ASEAN by effectively institutionalising, at least in the short term, the right to disrespect democratic principles and human rights.

Forget the group’s subsequent charter, which came into force in December 2008, and which, in theory, obliges members to follow international standards of human rights and social justice

The new quartet continues to violate these standards on a daily basis; although it has to be said that the founders also do the same whenever they find it expedient.

As well, both new and old members flagrantly ignore other aspects of the charter.

For months now, both Cambodia and Thailand have effectively torn up the charter’s provisions to respect their neighbour’s territorial integrity and settle disputes peacefully.

There would have been applause in Jakarta if the hosts had ordered Cambodia and Thailand to leave the room and not come back till they had settled their pathetically petty border tiff.

But that would not be the ASEAN way. Instead, young men are sent off to die and be horribly maimed so that their leaders can gain a few domestic political points.

It makes the blood boil, but let us try to calm down and return to the issue of whether Myanmar should host the 2014 summit.

It is a no-brainer. Of course, it should.

Myanmar cannot be denied this right simply because, like Vietnam and Laos and others, it does not respect human rights and democratic principles.

Yes, it is still run by military men who have swapped their uniforms for suits and who, over the past half century, have reduced one of the region’s richest countries to a basket case.

Admittedly, they have not done this quite as well as the military men who dominate the ruling dictatorships of Laos and Vietnam.

But then they have not had the advantage of Communism and they have had to contend with the West’s crippling economic sanctions.

Yet they may now start to surprise us, given that President Thein Sein has nominated U Myint, a political moderate and adviser to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as the head of the government’s economic advisory unit.

Knowing U Myint’s scathing contempt for the regime’s former policies, his nomination will give the Manicheans pause for thought.

It also suggests that Naypyidaw may be willing to initiate economic reforms using its new government structure.

Certainly, the European Union has reacted favourably and decided to suspend its freeze on assets and travel restrictions for high-ranking Myanmar officers for one year.

So let’s give the guys a break and let them have their summit.

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