The ASEAN conference has brought leaders to the capital of Myanmar to discuss topics as diverse as trade, territory, and terrorism. Some used the opportunity to highlight Myanmar’s controversial humanitarian record.
World leaders gathered in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyitaw on Wednesday for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, with talks that focused on stronger economic ties and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were also in attendance, as well as delegations from India and China, although these countries do not belong to the 10-nation bloc.
Myanmar President Thein Sein, the country’s first democratically elected leader since the military junta was dissolved in 2011, opened the meeting with a call for greater integration. He also recognized the steps the group had taken towards realizing plans to launch the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015.
Thein Sein also welcomed two new members to the meeting, newly sworn-in Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Prayuth Chan-ocha, the Thai prime minister who owes his position to a bloodless coup in May.
“I am fully confident that your leadership will not only bring greater peace, stability and prosperity to your peoples but also contribute to further enhance ASEAN integration,” Thein Sein said, adding that ASEAN must work hard at “promoting and protecting social justice and the rights of women, children and the elderly in our societies.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also gave opening remarks, saying that the UN “looks forward to working with each ASEAN member nation in promoting human rights and the protection of minorities,” noting the plight of the Rohingyas, a Muslim group denied citizenship in Myanmar for decades.
The secretary general said he hoped the Myanmar government would end the alleged human rights abuses in the country’s Rakhine state, where the Rohingyas live.
Another important topic during the discussions was fighting terrorism. Many people have left predominantly-Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia to fight along groups like “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq, and extremism threatens some member states from within their own borders – as is the case with the Philippines.
In a meeting with Indian diplomats, ASEAN and India made pledges to cooperate on counterterrorism as well as increase bilateral trade.
A key issue plaguing the region is territorial disagreements in the South China Sea.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines have accused China of encroaching on their territory. Last May, China sent an oil drilling rig to waters claimed by Vietnam. This led to weeks of back-and-forth between the two countries.
China asserts that nearly all of the South China Sea belongs to them, historically. China’s prime minister, Le Keqiang, also attended the meeting. ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh told news agency Reuters that “we are seeing a widespread gap between the political commitments and…the real situation at sea.” Philippine President Benigno Aquino also expressed the hope that progress could be made on the pressing security issue during the ASEAN talks.
Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar in 2012. He returned on Wednesday, and told local newspaper The Irrawaddy that hosting the conference was “a sign of the greater role your country can play in Southeast Asia…since my last visit there has been some progress, including economic reforms and welcome political steps.”
But the progress has been too slow in coming, Obama continued, mentioning the plight of journalists, who still face great censorship and are often arrested. He also echoed Ban Ki-moon on the hardships faced by the Rohingya, who Obama said “continue to endure discrimination and abuse.”
Obama is currently on a two-day visit to Myanmar before heading to the G20 summit in Australia.
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