Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have approved Myanmar’s request to chair the Southeast Asian regional bloc in 2014, giving the country some long-sought international recognition.
The 10-member bloc made the decision two years before schedule, as they began their 19th summit on Thursday in the Indonesian resort island of Bali, with maritime territorial disputes, free trade and other regional issues topping the agenda.
Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s foreign minister, confirmed that the leaders agreed that Myanmar could chair ASEAN in 2014.
“Be assured that we are now growing into a democratic society and we will do all our responsibilities and duties as a responsible government, reflecting the desires of the Myanmar people,” Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to the Myanmar president, said in Bali.
“We will do what we have to do as a democratic government and a democratic society. As a family, ASEAN nations have welcomed Myanmar to be a responsible chairman.”
Myanmar, which has more than 2,000 political prisoners, was forced to skip its turn last time around because of intense international criticism of its human-rights record.
Recent overtures by Myanmar’s government have included calls for peace with ethnic minority groups, some tolerance of criticism, the suspension of an unpopular Chinese-funded dam project and the legalisation of labour unions.
|Vietnam is one of the countries that lays claim to the South China Sea [EPA]|
“We believe that with the positive improvements in Myanmar right now, this has shown that Myanmar would like to come back to the democratic way,” Surapong Towijakchaiku, the Thai foreign minister, said at the summit.
Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, has also reached out to democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed last year from 15 years of house arrest.
Her National League for Democracy is expected to decide on Friday whether to re-register as a political party to contest imminent by-elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s party said Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship would help to drive political change.
“Their decision is tantamount to encouraging the present Myanmar government to step up the momentum for reforms,” Nyan Win, a senior official in Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, told the Reuters news agency in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon.
“Myanmar’s political activities will become more vibrant after assuming the chair and Myanmar will also become a quality member of ASEAN.”
Barack Obama, the US president, cautioned that Myanmar must still demonstrate improvements in human rights, in his first remarks since the Myanmar government freed hundreds of political prisoners in October and vowed more reforms in the weeks ahead.
“Some political prisoners have been released. The government has begun a dialogue. Still, violations of human rights persist,” Obama said in a speech to the Australian parliament on Thursday.
Obama landed in Bali after his visit to Australian on Thursday evening.
In his opening remarks, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president and host of the meeting, said ASEAN needs to increase its ability to resolve conflicts.
ASEAN has often been dismissed as a talking shop, given its policy of consensus and non-interference in member’s internal affairs.
“The establishment of an agreement guideline on the implementation of the declaration on the Code of Conduct of parties on South China Sea, between ASEAN and the Peoples’ Republic of China, has established great optimism on the management of issue of South China Sea,” Yudhoyono said.
The ASEAN summit comes just after the US urged claimants in the South China Sea territorial dispute not to resort to intimidation to push their cause in the potentially oil-rich waters, in an indirect reference to China, who is due to attend the meeting.
Trade matters and also the effects of the European debt crisis is also on the discussion agenda.
“We must strengthen our economy in the region so that such growth of our economy will make us more resilient to global economy volatility,” Yudhoyono said.
Partners of the bloc
This year the meeting, which brings together the 10 member countries, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, will be expanded to include Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The leaders of Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand – all partners of the bloc – will also join the talks on Friday.
ASEAN is due to consolidate regional free-trade agreements, boosting trade in what is arguably the world’s largest regional bloc.
Obama is likely to discuss an industrial dispute in the Indonesian province of West Papua with his Indonesian counterpart that began in mid-September.
The Grasberg copper and gold mine, the world’s most profitable mine, is run by the controversial US-based company Freeport.
Violence has escalated during the strike in a region seeing a long-running and low-level armed campaign, and several striking workers have been killed at the hands of Indonesian security forces.