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Myanmar changes bring new ASEAN-EU chapter

AFP,27 April 2012

Southeast Asian and European foreign ministers began meeting in Brunei on Friday to chart a “new chapter” in their relations now that democratic reforms are under way in former pariah Myanmar.

Human rights abuses and the harsh suppression of political dissent long made Myanmar a thorn in ties between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the international community, including the European Union.

But over the past year, Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, an ex-general, has freed hundreds of political prisoners, eased media restrictions and welcomed the opposition back into politics.

Myanmar also held historic by-elections on April 1 in which democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in parliament, floated its currency and signalled it was ready to accept foreign investments.

The EU this month rewarded what it said were “historic changes” in Myanmar by suspending for one year a wide range of trade, economic and individual sanctions, although it left intact an arms embargo.

“The remarkable transformation that is under way in Myanmar will further strengthen EU-ASEAN relations,” said EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton.

In an opinion piece published in the Jakarta Post ahead of the one-day foreign ministers’ meeting in Brunei, she said the gathering would “jointly commend the significant progress made by Myanmar towards a democratic future”.

Ashton told fellow ministers on Friday she will visit Myanmar after Brunei, according to a Twitter message by ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan.

“We will turn the page from restrictive measures to full engagement,” Surin quoted Ashton as saying.

The EU said in January it would open an office in the country’s main city Yangon to manage aid programmes.

It was all smiles and handshakes as the 27 EU foreign ministers and senior diplomats met with their counterparts from the 10-member ASEAN.

Apart from Ashton, the other European heavyweights at the meeting included British Foreign Minister William Hague and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

“I would say, yes, it is a new chapter because Myanmar is no longer a constant thorn like in the past,” a Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP.

“We can now turn a page in our relations.”

Analysts said it was still “early days” and Myanmar needs to do more for ties with the West to fully bloom.

“Yes, there has been real progress on the human rights front but this needs to be extended to the whole country and the new government needs more time to show how committed it is to these reforms,” said Justin Harper, market strategist at IG Markets Singapore.

“So while Myanmar is no longer a thorn in the side, the wounds haven’t yet healed.”

In Brunei, ministers will discuss ways to unleash the full potential of two-way trade between the two organisations’ members, which reached 167 billion euros ($221 billion) in 2011.

Plans for an ASEAN-EU free trade agreement (FTA) failed to take off because of differences over the scope and depth of such an accord, with the Myanmar issue also coming into play, according to diplomats.

The EU is now negotiating FTAs with individual ASEAN members, hoping that these can become “building blocks” for a region-to-region deal, diplomats say.

Harper said ASEAN — which covers Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — has become vital for the EU economically.

“Given the government debt crisis within the eurozone, the EU will need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU,” he said.

“ASEAN member nations are generally in a good shape and are seeing domestic demand grow so (they) rely less heavily on exports. The same can’t be said for Europe.”

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