When Myanmar takes the helm

theinsein_afp.jpg

When Myanmar takes the helm
Myanmar's President Thein Sein.

In 2005, Myanmar surprised ASEAN leaders by renouncing its right to the chairmanship of the regional bloc the following year. Facing protests at home and abroad, the government said it preferred to focus on national reconciliation and domestic development instead. Eight years later, however, at the 23rd ASEAN Summit in Brunei in October 2013, it was a different story. Myanmar was in an exuberant mood, and it showed.

President Thein Sein proudly stated that his country was ready to lead ASEAN next year, with an all-encompassing theme: "Moving forward in unity, towards a peaceful and prosperous community." Indeed, when Myanmar first announced the slogan at an official meeting a month earlier, a special pop-rock theme song, Spirit Of ASEAN, was played to commemorate the long-awaited chairmanship.

Last week, the 27th South-east Asian Games returned to Myanmar after 44 years of absence. The ongoing regional competition, which ends on Dec 22, is Naypyidaw's first regional showcase - a precursor for the ASEAN chair next year. The host has again surprised spectators with a dazzling opening ceremony and its gold-medal-winning athletes.

Discussions with senior Myanmar officials responsible for the ASEAN chairmanship reveal months of hard work shaping the theme and year-long agenda to reflect Naypyidaw's vision and that of ASEAN as a whole.

Pivotal moment

Given the vibrant domestic and regional environment, Myanmar's chairmanship comes at a pivotal juncture. On the one hand, the country is undergoing dramatic transformation in all areas, especially politics and economics. On the other hand, Naypyidaw's strategic imperatives will also come into play as it seeks to use the ASEAN chairmanship to gain influence in the region.

As a latecomer to ASEAN, Myanmar has had ample opportunity to learn from the experiences of other ASEAN states. Numerous capacity-building and human resource development programmes have been held for Myanmar officials involved with ASEAN affairs. Next year, at least 350 key meetings have been scheduled in Naypyidaw, Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Ngapali, attended by ASEAN officials.

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