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.

Sdok Kok Thom & Preah Vihear: In Border Temples, Shared History, Acceptance?

Here is is my VOA interview with John Burgess, a former Washington Post correspondent and author of “Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History.” Text below.

The International Court of Justice is expected to rule over the disputed territories between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on Nov. 11. While the temple has seen tensions and armed conflicts over the years, another ancient Khmer border temple, Sdok Kok Thom, might serve as an example of how both nations can move beyond the conflicts of the past. John Burgess, a former Washington Post correspondent, has authored a book about the temple tilted “Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History.” Burgess tells VOA Khmer’s Soeung Sophat that while these border temples have been the cause of conflict, they can also be a source of shared history and mutual acceptance between Thailand and Cambodia.