JAKARTA – Top diplomats of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are expected to consider international opinion when they decide on whether to allow Myanmar to chair the regional bloc by 2014.

“We live, interact, synergize and benefit from our relationship with the (rest of the) world. Certainly we will be open to hear their sentiments,” Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN secretary-general, told reporters here on Wednesday.

He emphasized that “ASEAN is where it is (today) because of the goodwill of dialogue partners.”

The secretary-general is attending the ministerial meetings which will run from July 15 to 23. Consideration of the matter is with the foreign ministers meeting (FMM).

Earlier, Indonesian parliamentarian Kusuma Sundari, president of the ASEAN Inter-parliamentary Caucus on Myanmar (AIPMC), warned about the potential backlash from Western governments should Myanmar take over ASEAN’s chairmanship.

Sundari said that based on their interactions with government officials in Australia, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU), the would-be impact “will not be good for ASEAN as a whole.”

“You cannot help it. These governments still look at Aung San Suu Kyi as the icon of democracy in Myanmar,” she stressed.

But she acknowledged the Western government officials did not spell out what measures they would be taking to register their dissatisfaction to such an ASEAN action.

Daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San, Suu Kyi leads the main opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) which won the parliamentary elections in 1990 but was not allowed to assume power by the military junta.

Placed under house arrest for several years, she was released November 13, 2010, one week after the first parliamentary elections in 20 years.

Advancing the schedule

Myanmar was supposed to assume the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN this year but was pushed forward to 2016 during a summit in 2006.

Last January, it asked to advance its chairmanship schedule to 2014.

During the 18th ASEAN Summit last May here, the region’s foreign ministers asked Indonesia to assess the readiness of Myanmar to lead the 10-country bloc.

Pitsuwan said recent signals from Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s new capital, indicated the country is ready to receive such an Indonesian diplomatic mission.

Such mission, he added, is “a reflection of ASEAN’s supporting Myanmar on a road to opening up.”

The region’s leaders in 2007 have emphasized that they “will strive to prevent the Myanmar issue from obstructing ASEAN’s integration efforts…”

Key considerations

The parameters for evaluating Myanmar’s 2014 chairmanship bid varied among the member-states’ diplomats. But many of them share the common concerns with civil society and democratization activists.

Principal among the issues is national reconciliation which should start with a tripartite dialogue between the NLD, ethnic nationalities and the military junta which the United Nations have long called for but continue to be derailed.

Other issues include release of political detainees and addressing internal displacement.

In the 2005, 2007 and 2009 summits, ASEAN leaders have been calling for the release of political prisoners. International human rights groups estimated some 2,000 of them as of now.

They have also urged for the lifting of restrictions on Suu Kyi.

Pitsuwan said some other member-countries would like to ascertain the state of Myanmar’s interaction with the international community like the UN which has appointed a human rights rapporteur for the country for over a decade now.

Sundari also includes media repression as a key issue to look into.

Crucial credentials

Chairing the bloc in 2014 will accord crucial credentials for Myanmar, which has completed a military junta-crafted Seven-Step Roadmap to Democracy with the convening of its parliament and coming into force of a new constitution early this year.

This was a product of a November 2010 parliamentary polls that activists, along with the governments of Indonesia and the Philippines, criticized as a sham because of widespread repression on the media and the political opposition.

By 2014, Myanmar’s parliamentarians would have been more than half-way their elective and appointive terms. A fourth of the 664-member bicameral parliament are constitutionally-mandated to be military appointees.

Even as ASEAN maintains an open mind about world opinion, Pitsuwan said its leaders will ultimately decide on the Myanmar chairmanship question.

He said he is “confident the foreign ministers will decide in the interest of ASEAN.” –Ria Rose Uro, Interaksyon.com