Myanmar: ASEAN beckons

And chairing by 2014?

As 48-year old Marty Natalegawa, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, visits Myanmar to check on the country's readiness to join ASEAN, will recent welcomed reforms pay off? It looks increasingly as though they might, with Myanmar advancing by two years the proposed moment when it will chair the ASEAN group. That's a mere three years away, well before which Myanmar will need to be admitted to the South East Asian trade bloc.

Indonesia is not the only country taking the new civilian Burmese government seriously, as two senior US diplomats are set to arrive in Yangon and newly built capital at Naypyidaw  to meet a range of officials, including President Thein Sein and opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi. 

These developments follow the release of Suu Kyi from prolongued house detention, the freeing of a number of political prisoners and the unannounced freezing of construction work on an unpopular Chinese built mega dam. China remains a close trading partner, but clearly the ASEAN countries and the United States envisage a future where Myanmar will indeed broaden its spread if interests and open doors to alternative foreign investment.

Treatment by the Burmese of ethnic minorities, human rights abuses and calamatous responses to domestic natural disasters will undoubtedly remain concerns to the international community. But the prospect of developing profitable trading links will be attractive, especially at a time when the world needs to bolster growth.

The 60.3 million Burmese inhabit 676,578 sq km, which is larger than France. They languish near to the bottom of GDP per capita league tables, but the potential should be vast. Resources are plentiful, with timber, jade, gems and rice, together with gas, and beans and pulses forming the majority of exports. The country imports fabrics, oil, construction materials, machinery and food. But there's scope for raising the levels of both. 

A big ploblem is alleged smuggling into Thailand and elsewhere which scews official figures. Proper border controls should help, and joining ASEAN will no doubt assist Burma's policing targets.

Burma enjoyed a democratic regime after the British left in 1948. That republic lasted until overtaken by a military coup in 1962. Assuming political reforms hold now, the future for Myanmar looks promising as the potential exists for the rapid and sustained development of this cultured and resource-rich country.

But a military-backed civilian organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won contentious elections in 2010 after which its leader Thein Sein became president. Negotiations with Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy are progressing, thankfully. And opening up the country can only bode well for those wanting to experience a pluralistic modern Myanmar.

Corruption appears rife, however, with the Corruption Perceptions Index ranking Myanmar at world number 176 out of a total surveyed 180 countries. 

Much to do then in Myanmar, but opening the trade doors, permitting more tourism, freeing up society and engaging with the world can only be beneficial. The days of a closed Burma are now over.

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