Myanmar takes long-awaited ASEAN chair, but can it cope?

Reuters

By James Pomfret

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei, Oct 10 (Reuters) - In a roomfestooned with purple and yellow flowers, Myanmar took along-coveted role on Thursday as chairman of ASEAN, the regionalgrouping of Southeast Asia.

But in a country where three-quarters of the population lackaccess to electricity and basic telephone services are patchy,the job holds as many problems as promise for a semi-civiliangovernment that emerged from 49 years of oppressive militaryrule two years ago to surprise the world with sweeping reforms.

Myanmar may struggle to cope with the onslaught of meetings- a total of 1,100 - it will host next year when the role ofchairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations formallybegins.

Many government institutions face shortages of skilled civilservants. And many government buildings lack basicinfrastructure, such as computers.

"It won't be perfect, but it won't be a disaster," said TinMaung Maung Than, a Burmese scholar and senior fellow at theInstitute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

President Thein Sein's democratic reforms have won praisebut he has also been criticised for failing to stem religiousviolence that has killed at least 240 people and displaced140,000, most of them Muslims, since June 2012 in theBuddhist-majority country also known as Burma.

"Burma can't even get its own human rights house in order,how can it be expected to lead regionally on human rights?" saidPhil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch.

Apartheid-like policies in Myanmar's western Rakhine Statehave segregated Buddhists from stateless Rohingya Muslims,leaving many of them in primitive camps with little hope ofresettlement. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar byboat, washing ashore in Thailand and Malaysia.

Serial human rights abuses, however, haven't stopped otherSoutheast Asian countries from chairing ASEAN. Last year's host,Cambodia, has tolerated little dissent since its authoritarianprime minister, Hun Sen, consolidated power in a 1997 coup.

"IT WILL NOT BE A STRUGGLE"

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the chairmanship wasa "good opportunity" for Myanmar to build on its socio-economicprogress and democratic transition.

"We all agree and we're also concerned that there are stillmany more challenges, particularly communal violence, which theyhave been experiencing, in Rakhine state involving Rohingyaminority groups," he said.

"We have been working very hard...to encourage Myanmarauthorities to have inclusive dialogue and conciliatorypolicies."

Myanmar officials insist they are ready to take the role ofchairman. Hotels are sprouting in the once-secretive capitalNaypyitaw, a sprawling city built from scratch just seven yearsago.

Naypyitaw hosts the Southeast Asia (SEA) Games in December -a rehearsal for next year's ASEAN meetings that include anannual East Asia summit bringing together leaders from 18nations including China, Japan and the United States, along withan army of inquisitive journalists.

"We've been preparing for this chairmanship for quite awhile," Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told Reuters on thesidelines of this year's East Asia Summit in Brunei. "It willnot be a struggle for us."

Presidential Advisor Nay Zin Lat added, "We know we'll haveto host about 1,100 meetings during the term, and preparationsare being made accordingly."

Myanmar was first due to take ASEAN's rotating chairmanshipin 2006, but was passed over amid fears Western countries wouldboycott meetings held there.

The country was then a global byword for backwardness andtyranny, with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi underhouse arrest and the United States and European Union imposingstrict economic and political sanctions.

Most sanctions are now history, and after her release in2010, Suu Kyi became a member of Myanmar's fledgling parliament.The role of ASEAN chairman is the crowning achievement for agovernment eager to distance itself from the bad old days.

At the ceremony, Thein Sein accepted a golden gavel tosymbolise the job. Later, there was a screening of a short filmportraying Myanmar as a "paradise" of rich resources, goldenpagodas and ethnic diversity, as a narrator declared, "Now isMyanmar's time in the sun."

The upcoming SEA Games in Naypyitaw have promptedcomparisons to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which markedpost-war Japan's re-emergence on the world stage.

A central problem, however, could be weak infrastructure.This year's ASEAN summit in Brunei had 500 staff to handle morethan 1,000 journalists - all of whom could place enormousstrains on Myanmar's notoriously slow Internet.

Initial fears of a dearth of hotel rooms, however, have allbut vanished in a din of construction in Naypyitaw, which nowhas 53 hotels boasting 4,286 rooms, more than double the numberneeded for the current summit in Brunei.

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