Officials, Observers Optimistic About Burma’s First Asean Chairmanship

Original VOA piece by Sophat Soeung, 19 December 2013

Burmar's President Thein Sein (L), chairman of the next ASEAN Summit, shakes hand with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah after receiving the ASEAN Gavel during the Closing Ceremony of the 23rd ASEAN Summit, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Oct. 10, 2013.

Burmar’s President Thein Sein (L), chairman of the next ASEAN Summit, shakes hand with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah after receiving the ASEAN Gavel during the Closing Ceremony of the 23rd ASEAN Summit, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Oct. 10, 2013.

WASHINGTON — Burma will become the chair of Asean in January next year for the first time in its history. The Asean chairmanship follows recent political reforms and the lifting of sanctions by the international community. Both Burmese and Western officials now see the country’s readiness for a greater leadership role in the region.

Burma’s acceptance of the 2014 Asean chairmanship in a ceremony in Brunei in October marked a symbolic moment for the country’s increased regional standing.

On the eve of this chairmanship, officials and observers alike are hopeful that despite some challenges, the country’s first chairmanship will be a success.

Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser Thein Sein, the president of Burma, also known as Myanmar, told VOA Khmer that the greatest significance of this chairmanship is political legitimacy for the Burmese regime.

“We can show our leadership in the region, and we can show that we are a responsible member to Asean,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a conference at American University in Washington in early December.

Burma joined Asean in 1997, along with Laos and one year ahead of Cambodia. But its isolation from the international community and image as a pariah state prevented it from hosting Asean in 2006.

Both Laos and Cambodia have previously chaired Asean. But Cambodia’s hopeful second chairmanship in 2012 was marred by a historic disagreement over the South China Sea, as a result of its close relationship with China and inability to manage increased Chinese tensions with some Asean members. Brunei’s chairmanship this year has been heralded as bringing Asean together again.

Like Cambodia and unlike Brunei, Burma is a non-claimant to the sea dispute.

But Ko Ko Hlaing said that unlike Cambodia, Burma is bigger and less dependent on China economically, while, conversely, China is more dependent on Burma’s strategic location.

Despite Burma’s close ties with its northern neighbor, it is not a “master and client relationship, and the Burmese government will avoid a repeat of what happened in Phnom Penh, he said. “We can take this position of the close relationship with China for the best interest of our region.”

While Burma is in a better position than Cambodia, navigating through increased US and Chinese geo-political rivalries may prove difficult nevertheless, said Christina Fink, a professor in international development studies at George Washington University and a long-time observer of Burma.

Despite all preparedness, recent escalating tensions in the region is cause for concern for the unexpected, she said.

“Myanmar is really kind of caught in between these big power players,” she said. “And it may be difficult for Myanmar to really be able to take leadership over how to handle these disputes within the framework of Asean meetings and the statements that they put out.”

The months leading into Burma’s chairmanship have seen increased tensions between China and Japan over a Chinese-declared air defense zone in the East China Sea.

Analysts are concerned those tensions will spread to the South China Sea, where tensions are already simmering between China and Asean members the Philippines and Vietnam.

During last week’s Japan-Asean anniversary summit in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged more loans to garner support from Southeast Asian leaders.

The effort followed a year of “blitz diplomacy” to all Asean countries that concluded with Abe’s trip to Cambodia and Laos, two countries seen as China’s closest allies in the region. The sea tensions also overshadowed US Vice President Joe Biden’s tour of Asia.

Scott Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told VOA Khmer recently that the US sees a “strong and unified Asean” as important for the region.

“We always like to see Asean working together, and we are very hopeful that under Myanmar’s chairmanship, that will happen,” he said.

The US will not impose its agendas on Asean and is generally satisfied with Burma’s recent reforms, he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Ko Ko Hlaing, who said Burma’s reforms have outpaced regional neighbors, raising hopes it can become one of the world’s “models of the democratic transition.”

Some analysts have indeed pointed to Burma’s unique circumstances as holding the promise of returning democratization to the top of Asean’s agenda.

However, human rights organizations say there are shortcomings in Burma’s transition, including ongoing rights abuses and violence against political dissidents, as well as Muslim and ethnic minorities.

Given how far the country has come, it deserves praise, Fink said. But Burma’s ambitions and the international community’s expectations should both be kept in check, she said, considering geopolitical realities and Burma’s own shortcomings.

“I don’t think that for their first chairmanship they need to aspire to really doing something transformative in Asean,” she said. “I think what is important for them is to keep things stable, keep things on track, bring people together in Asean. And if they can accomplish that they can be proud of that.”

Burmese Official Says Country’s Reforms Outpacing Neighbors

Original VOA piece by Kong Sothanarith and Sophat Soeung, December 6, 2013

President Thein Sein of Myanmar zoomed passed me after giving an exclusive interview at Voice of America headquarters in Washington, DC, May 19, 2013. Such is the pace of Myanmar's reforms.

President Thein Sein of Myanmar zoomed passed me after giving an exclusive interview at the Voice of America headquarters in Washington, DC, Sunday, May 19, 2013. Such is the pace of Myanmar’s reforms that some of its official claim is outpacing its neighbors. (Sophat Soeung)

PHNOM PENH & WASHINGTON DC – A senior adviser to the Burmese government says reforms in that country are outpacing Cambodia and other regional neighbors.

Speaking on the sidelines of a conference at American University in Washington, Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to Burmese President Thein Sein, admitted that Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a “latecomer” to political reforms. But he said it is making gains.

“Even though Cambodia is now enjoying the political and democratic transition, but I think Myanmar is more open than Cambodia up to right now,” he told VOA Khmer. “So you can see in the media, and also the movement of the civil society and also the situation of free and fair elections in our bi-elections in 2012.”

Ou Virak, who is head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and who visited Burma in November, disagrees.

“Democracy in Cambodia is better, I think,” he told VOA Khmer. “But democracy is Cambodia is still grave.”

Burma, which has undertaken democratic reforms, including an election, is preparing to chair Asean in 2014. It has seen diplomatic improvements with regional countries and on the international stage, including with the US.

But Information Minister Khieu Kanharith told VOA Khmer that Cambodia has “genuine democracy,” pointing to gains at the polls by the opposition in July, despite opposition objections to what it says were fraudulent elections.

“We do not pretend to be a model of democracy, because each country has its own history and its own pace to attain it,” Khieu Kanharith said by text message. “But at least we don’t have civil war anymore.”

Ou Virak said that Burma’s elected officials are still a part of the military junta that has ruled the country for decades. And the media there suffer from the same ills as in Cambodia, he said. “TV and radio are still under strict measures, as in Cambodia,” he said.

Eric Schmidt: Get to Know the Digital Leaders of the Future!

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

Speaking to international affairs students and professionals at the John Hopkins University’s SAIS on Wednesday, Google’s Eric Schmidt advised them get to know the digital leaders of the future in additional to foreign policy leaders as the world is seeing a gradual shift of power.

“I think that the leaders of this digital revolution have earned a seat at your table. I really believe this. I think they’re just as important – they are not more important but they are just as important. And I would advise you to get to know them early. Get to know them when they are young. Get to know them when they are on their way up. Watch them change the world, figure out a way to support them, and figure out a way to follow them. Because those will be the people who will ultimately shape the discourse a decade from now, or two decades from now because they will then be, in power.”

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

He also advised countries and companies to attract and keep innovators:

“In building these networks, we are going to need innovators. Innovators are the lifeblood of these [network] models. You have to have entrepreneurs. You have to have people who have new ideas and you have to protect them.”

You can watch the full lecture and panel here, including my questioning at 52:00.

Predicting Cambodia: Before and After a Historic Election

My research paper for the East-West Center's Asia-Pacific Bulletin about growing influence of social media on pre-election Cambodia.

My research paper for the East-West Center’s Asia-Pacific Bulletin about the growing influence of social media in pre-election Cambodia.

I have finally received a color copy of my first policy paper published by the East-West Center, a prominent U.S. education and research institution. This short research has greatly boosted my confidence in predicting and analyzing events in Cambodia.

In this paper, I primarily argued that on the eve of Cambodian fifth general elections, a number of new socio-political variables have entered Cambodian politics, including a merger of Hun Sen’s political opposition, a sudden and accidental political awareness of a new generation I termed “post-Khmer Rouge baby boomers”, and a rise in nationalism that – unlike the 2008’s Preah Vihear drama – was more favorable to the opposition party’s anti-Vietnam campaign. Just months before the election, these new variables converged on the country’s exploding Facebook and other social media platforms, which are in themselves a significant variable. The growth pace of this “digital democracy” had kept it largely under the government’s radar.

Although (or because) published just days before the elections, the paper received only moderate publicity, except for the Bangkok Post. I was also too busy after the election to write a follow-up to it.

Nevertheless, I was among the first few observers who seemed to have fully grasped the changes in pre-election Cambodia. The points I laid out would later be confirmed by the election results and other Cambodia observers have since followed up on those social changes. It is a current hot topic among researchers and journalists and this latest piece in the Southeast Asia Globe could easily have been my own follow-up writing.

Predicting Cambodia is always interesting because the country must be one of the world’s most unpredictable. Due to its modern history and political ideology, Cambodia does not easily fit established political and social theories. New terms like “auto-genocide” and references like Phnom Penh’s 2012 “high-profile failure” over the South China Sea dispute had to be developed. July’s surprising general election also seemed to have put Cambodia closer to an Arab Spring than any other Southeast Asian country.

Well, these all make the job of guessing “what’s next?” in Cambodia all the more fun.

When the Wall Came Down: Reflections on the RIAS Berlin Fellowship

By Sophat Soeung, Voice of America, Washington, D.C. for RIAS Berlin (Fall 2013 Photos)

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the German lower house of parliament. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the German lower house of parliament. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

When the Fernsehturm appeared imposingly in the distant fall sky during our descend into Berlin’s Tegel Airport, I immediately knew that the RIAS Fellowship would be unlike any of my previous trips to the German capital. Last time I had seen Berlin from above like this was as a child nearly twenty years ago, when my family flew out of Tegel, permanently leaving a city I once called home.

I, thus, came to RIAS ‘prepared’ to learn more about — first and foremost — the Berlin I didn’t know, but also about Germany and Europe. RIAS even exceeded the “dream Fellowship” I had in mind. In two weeks, I have gained invaluable knowledge and professional connections, passed through more diverse cities, eaten more new dishes, and talked to more strangers on the streets than any two weeks before.

There are countless highlights of the program, but as a former Berliner, I could not escape “Nach der Wende” or “When the Wall came down.” It had been a constant narrative throughout the RIAS program, from our first session in Berlin to our last session at NATO in Brussels.

The ‘Wall narrative’ was prevalent in Berlin. Nearly 24 years after its iconic Wall came down, the city’s East-West “mental gap” still existed in people who had lived through the divide, but fading with the younger generation. According to Mr. Thomas Habicht this mental divide manifested itself in media preference and voting pattern. The September elections were indeed a clear indication. And to my surprise, two 18-year-old Germans in the eastern Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood told me they voted for the leftist party, suggesting a continuing undercurrent even amongst the young.

Thanks to RIAS’ appointments with prominent politicians, business leaders, and media professionals, in the nearly two weeks, I lived and learned Berlin like never before. Be it a currywurst at Curry36; the Spree boat tour through the ‘Berlin Mall’; a walk with a Turkish-German politician in Wedding; interviewing a Berlin official near the former city hall where President Kennedy delivered his famed “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech; touring RTL television station; or going to an opera; each moment captured a different aspect of the dynamism that is today’s Berlin.

But as a former “East Berliner”, not all new revelations were pleasant. At the former Stasi prison, I learned for the first time that the East German secret police most likely had a file on my family. Almost everyone I talked to was shocked at my mentioning of “Marzahn” as the district I once grew up. The once communist-inspried “City of the Future,” Marzahn is now known throughout Germany as the “Berlin ghetto” of xenophobia. Admittedly, my growing up there as a foreigner was not pleasant. But on this trip, I did find the healing answers to the many things I could not comprehend as a child.

Gentrification was happening in Berlin on a vast scale — even grander than that of Washington D.C. — and cranes were everywhere. They were bringing down old walls while also erecting new ones. But rather unique to Berlin, development is happening on top of many layers of history. At the East Side Gallery, we had a close-up of this conflict over one of the last stretches of the Berlin Wall. I couldn’t help thinking that ironically Berlin’s new battle was to keep the Wall standing — the city’s long-term dilemma between development and preservation.

I was surprised to learn that history of division had literally ‘robbed’ Berlin of its economic significance and prevented the capital of Europe’s largest economy from becoming the metropolis that are London and Paris. Yet, history also made it the only Western capital allowed to start anew. Even as Germany’s poorest state, it seemed every road for the young led to Berlin. The influx of new people drives the city’s tech industry and makes it feel one city again. Perhaps most symbolic, I left Berlin on the German Unity Day, satisfied with my greater understanding of the former divided city.

But walls also existed beyond Berlin. This was the first time I learned about the invisible divide between Germany’s former East and West. Most striking, the legacy of that divide is not only felt politically and economically, but even views of history differ. At the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, I learned that in the former East Germany, the history of the Nazis was not dealt with adequately because the former communist regime saw itself also a victim of Hitler. Its correlation with xenophobia proved a revelation to me. Furthermore, unlike America, Germany has yet to think of itself as a nation of immigrants; nevertheless, the country has come a long way in accepting its difficult history. As Buchenwald press director Dr. Philipp Neumann-Thein summed up for me, “I am not proud to be German on the history but I am proud to be German on how we dealt with history.”

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows at the European Union building in Brussels. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows at the European Union building in Brussels. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

That history also constituted the walls  that existed elsewhere in Europe. While “When the Wall came down” marks the end of the Cold War, it also marks the beginning a reunified Germany that is now once again leading Europe, perhaps at the discomfort of both its neighbors and itself. For the first time, the German elections have become a topic in neighboring countries, we were told. We also learned it is the only developed country to emerged better economically after the financial crisis. Given its current political and economic cloud in the EU, while cognizant of its history, the message of German pacifism at the defense office should not have come as an irony.

Of course, and there were the German elections, the third I had witnessed in less than a year after the U.S. and Cambodian elections. Every previous RIAS group seemed to claim their program as the best or most fortuitous. But I think the German elections, the NSA drama, and the Syrian crisis — to point a few — did make ours truly the most fortuitous. Who else could claim to have seen Angela Merkel land in a helicopter at the Chancellery and walking passed us into her office — just three days before the election? Or given a results analysis the very next morning by her party officials? Oh, yes, and that poster, “Cool bleiben und Kanzlerin wählen!”

Merkel’s “grand” victory seemed to only further symbolise Germany’s confident standing in Europe and the world. That confidence in one’s political, economic, and media institutions, is increasingly shaken in the US. This is especially true as I arrive back in Washington, DC during the government shutdown. RIAS Fellows had been sharing their wish that the U.S. would learn from the German compromise.

And even nearly one month after RIAS, the experience is strong. Der Spiegel has found its way into my daily morning read, and all eyes are now on the NSA spying revelations that is starting to erect new ‘walls’ in US-German relations. Here at VOA, I immediately applied my knowledge from RIAS to explain Germany to my colleagues. On a lighter note, I was honored to be panelist at a RIAS-Deutsche Welle reunion at the Goethe Institute in Washington. And better yet, my biggest ‘RIAS’ moment back in America came when, for the first time, my dateline was “Berlin”!

RIAS has been a truly life-changing experience for me, both professionally and personally. It has tremendously increased my understanding of Germany’s political, economic, social, and media systems as well as its relations with Europe and the United States. Just looking at what I have written surprises me as to how much more confident I am in discussing Germany and Europe. I am grateful.

As an American journalist, I came with my own walls of misunderstandings, misconceptions, or pure ignorance of the Germany beyond Marzahn. The Berlin Wall came down on November 09, 1989. My “Berlin Wall” came down during the RIAS Fellowship, nearly 24 years later.

Note: This is a repost of my report for RIAS Berlin Fellowship Fall 2013. You can apply for the 2014 program here. Learn more about my Berlin connection here.