In recent years, Myanmar has been trying to improve relations with its neighbors. It is regarded as part of Southeast Asia but it is also in the immediate hinterlands of India, China and South Asia and is strongly influenced and engaged with them as it is with Southeast Asia. Myanmar is a member of ASEAN and a member of the seven member BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Forum), which also includes Bhutan and Nepal.

The leaders of the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia all demanded the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and for Myanmar to make democratic reforms. Indonesia put more pressure on Myanmar to reform and democratize and release Aung San Suu Kyi than other Southeast Asian nations. Indonesia perhaps knew better than the others what it was talking about as it had been ruled for decades by a military-dominated government.

Leaders from Cambodia and Myanmar visited each other’s country and gave each other support in the face of criticism from the international community.

Myanmar and ASEAN

Myanmar became a member of ASEAN (an alliance of 10 Southeast Asian nations) in July, 1997. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed led the effort to get Myanmar admitted. Afterwards the European union canceled meetings with ASEAN and the Myanmar military government didn’t make many changes. Many Southeast Asia nations in the group have kept their distance from Myanmar.

ASEAN members tried to get Myanmar to change through a policy they called constructive engagement. The organization consistently urged Myanmar to free Aung San Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest and make democratic reforms. In June 2003, ASEAN broke its tradition of not criticizing its members and called for the Myanmar government to release Aung San Suu Kyi. There was even some talk of expelling the nation from ASEAN. The effort was led by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who earlier had advocated a hands off policy towards Myanmar. Little came of the effort as ASEAN failed to back up the critique with any action, threats, policies or punishment.

ASEAN formed the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus to address the lack of democratisation in Myanmar. At the annual ASEAN Summit in January 2007, held in Cebu, Philippines, member countries failed to find common ground on the issue of Burma's lack of political reform. During the summit, ASEAN foreign ministers asked Burma to make greater progress on its roadmap toward democracy and national reconciliation. Some member countries contend that Burma's human rights issues are the country's own domestic affairs, while others contend that its poor human rights record is an international issue.

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “ASEAN has repeatedly urged Burma to comply with ASEAN norms and standards and protect its reputation. But Rangoon has never complied. Normally, the military junta leaders would rather ignore them completely or if necessary, prefer to meet the demands half way at the time of their own choosing. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation November 8, 2010]

Myanmar was supposed to take over the leadership of ASEAN in 2006 but was pressured by other ASEAN members to give up its turn. The ASEAN members applied pressure because they in turn were pressured by the United States and the European Union who said they would boycott ASEAN meetings if they were hosted by Myanmar.

China took off a little of the sting and humiliation of the ASEAN snub by pulling out of attending the ASEAN summit in Laos and instead sent its foreign minister to Myanmar, which it described as a “friendly country.” In July 2005, at the same time that Myanmar was receiving a sharp rebuke at an ASEAN meeting in Laos the Chinese foreign minister was visiting Yangon and having meetings of “matters of mutual interest” with the generals there and called Myanmar was a “friendly country.”

Myanmar Takes Long-awaited ASEAN Chair, but Can it Cope?

In 2014, Myanmar took on the long-coveted role as chairman of ASEAN, the regional grouping of Southeast Asia but many wonder whether it can cope. Reuters reported: “Myanmar may struggle to cope with the onslaught of meetings — a total of 1,100 — it will host in 2014 when the role of chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations formally begins. "Burma can't even get its own human rights house in order, how can it be expected to lead regionally on human rights?" said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch while Tin Maung Maung Than, a Burmese scholar and senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, won't be perfect, but it won't be a disaster.” [Source:James Pomfret, Reuters, October 10, 2013 |||]

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the chairmanship was a "good opportunity" for Myanmar to build on its socio-economic progress and democratic transition. "We all agree and we're also concerned that there are still many more challenges, particularly communal violence, which they have been experiencing, in Rakhine state involving Rohingya minority groups," he said. "We have been working very encourage Myanmar authorities to have inclusive dialogue and conciliatory policies." |||

Myanmar officials insist they are ready to take the role of chairman. Hotels are sprouting in the once-secretive capital Naypyitaw, a sprawling city built from scratch just seven years ago. The 2014 ASEAN meetings include an annual East Asia summit bringing together leaders from 18 nations including China, Japan and the United States, along with an army of inquisitive journalists. "We've been preparing for this chairmanship for quite a while," Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told Reuters on the sidelines of this year's East Asia Summit in Brunei. "It will not be a struggle for us." |||

“Myanmar was first due to take ASEAN's rotating chairmanship in 2006, but was passed over amid fears Western countries would boycott meetings held there. The country was then a global byword for backwardness and tyranny, with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and the United States and European Union imposing strict economic and political sanctions. Most sanctions are now history, and after her release in 2010, Suu Kyi became a member of Myanmar's fledgling parliament. The role of ASEAN chairman is the crowning achievement for a government eager to distance itself from the bad old days. |||

“A central problem, however, could be weak infrastructure. This year's ASEAN summit in Brunei had 500 staff to handle more than 1,000 journalists - all of whom could place enormous strains on Myanmar's notoriously slow Internet. Initial fears of a dearth of hotel rooms, however, have all but vanished in a din of construction in Naypyitaw, which now has 53 hotels boasting 4,286 rooms, more than double the number needed for the current summit in Brunei.” |||

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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