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Myanmar handed ASEAN chair over objections of many in U.S.

November 17, 2011 |  2:58 pm

Myanmar President Thein Sein at the ASEAN summit
REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI -- Leaders of a Southeast Asian trade group have chosen Myanmar for their rotating chairmanship, giving the isolated nation the diplomatic recognition it’s long craved over the objections of many in the United States who argue that more time is needed to ensure that the strong-arm government has really changed its ways.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was given the leadership role in the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, late Thursday at the group’s summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

"All leaders are in agreement that significant changes, significant developments, have taken place in Burma and those changes have made it more conducive for Burma to carry out this responsibility," said Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

Myanmar has been ruled by a military government that for decades has imprisoned thousands of political prisoners, placed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in detention for much of the last two decades, disregarded elections and maintained a tight control over its people.

Over the last year, however, the military government has held elections, released Suu Kyi from house arrest and engaged in direct talks with her, freed 200 of the estimated 2,000 imprisoned dissidents and halted work on a controversial dam financed by the regional powerhouse, China. It’s also passed a law giving workers the right to strike and in recent weeks held a summit with India.

The apparent turnaround has intensified debate abroad over whether engagement with Myanmar -- long favored by Asian neighbors keen to do more lucrative business deals with the resource-rich nation -- or a tougher line is the best way to foster democratic change.

Complicating the mix is Myanmar’s relationship with its neighbor and close ally China, which has enjoyed significant political and economic influence in the country. Some in the West now argue that early engagement with Myanmar -- regardless of ongoing human rights violations -- is a way to increase the distance between Burma and Beijing and otherwise blunt China’s growing clout in the region. 

President Obama has cautioned against engaging precipitously with the Myanmar regime. On a stop in Australia this week before arriving in Bali, Obama said his administration would maintain its carrot-and-stick approach, balancing engagement with sanctions, to encourage further change, adding that "violations of human rights persist."

Human rights groups have expressed concern that Myanmar is now free to backtrack, having won the ASEAN chairmanship.

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-- Mark Magnier

Photo: Myanmar President Thein Sein at the Assn. of South East Asian Nations summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Thursday. Credit: Pool Photo

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