News / Asia

ASEAN Hoping for Removal of Burma Sanctions

 ASEAN countries' foreign ministers pose during a photo session at the 45th Association of Foreign Ministers' Plus Three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 10, 2012. .
ASEAN countries' foreign ministers pose during a photo session at the 45th Association of Foreign Ministers' Plus Three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 10, 2012. .
Irwin Loy
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – As senior ministers in Southeast Asia meet for a high-level summit in Cambodia this week, some observers are already looking ahead to 2014. That is when Burma, also known as Myanmar, will be taking its place as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In an interview with VOA, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the regional bloc deserves credit for encouraging reforms in Burma. He also expressed frustration that international sanctions have not been removed altogether.

International sanctions

When ASEAN leaders gathered in Phnom Penh in early April, the questions surrounding Burma focused on when, rather than if, international sanctions would be lifted. Burma had just staged key by-elections, during which opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi ​emerged victorious. The feeling from ASEAN officials was that Burma, should be rewarded.

The international community responded. The United States, Australia, the European Union all announced a relaxation of their sanctions. But, for ASEAN, the goal is to have sanctions completely removed.

Although there has been little public discussion about Burma during ministers’ meetings this week, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan says the region’s leaders are still paying attention.

“I think the U.S. and the EU are adopting two separate strategies," said Surin. "The EU is suspending sanctions, meaning anything can go, but it can be imposed again. The U.S. is relaxing it step by step, so two strategies. We appreciate that. But we hope that the pace will be quick and that evolution inside Myanmar will warrant a serious reconsideration of the measures put in place for the sanctions.”

ASEAN Member Nations
ASEAN Member Nations


Surin rejects suggestions that the international community’s reluctance to completely remove sanctions, is causing friction with ASEAN.

“I call it a sense of frustration, that things are not moving faster. But as I say, in the end, we have to live with it," said Surin. "It's the sovereign right of those dialogue partners, those major countries and groupings, to decide. But what we can do is we can demonstrate to them, as far we are concerned, things are moving in the right direction. We are confident that it's not going to be reversed. The government of Myanmar, the people of Myanmar, deserve a certain degree of relaxation. The process should move fast.”

However, some observers have a more blunt assessment.

“ASEAN wants the sanctions against Burma removed, because it discriminates against one of its members," said Carlyle Thayer, a specialist on ASEAN affairs at the University of New South Wales. "They see the reforms as going positively. The European Union, the United States and Australia, Norway, which have lifted or suspended their sanctions but not ended them, still want to keep them in place so if there's any backsliding, they can be re-imposed.”


Thayer says one problem is that ending sanctions is much more complicated than imposing them in the first place.

“Sanctions are so complex because you have to have unanimity in the EU, and in the United States you have congressionally imposed sanctions and U.S. presidential executive orders," said Thayer. "So in both areas it's a huge maze. It’s easier to suspend, than it is to get complete unanimity.”

For now though, Surin says he is looking ahead to 2014, when Burma will take the ASEAN chair.

“It was our encouragement, that if you want to chair ASEAN, which is both the responsibility and the prestige and the honor, you will have to do a lot of things, and ASEAN I think has been instrumental," said Surin. "Now we are helping them. We are opening up opportunities for them. They come and observe meetings like this, meetings like in Indonesia. Working their way into 2014.”

Although ASEAN has a large stake in ensuring Burma’s chairmanship is as trouble-free as possible, Burma’s government, too, stands to benefit domestically from becoming chair. General elections are planned for just a year later, in 2015.


Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political analyst at Kyoto University, says, if Burma is serious about staging truly free and fair elections this time around, chairing ASEAN could go a long way to boosting the government’s image, within its own borders.

“I think 2014 is such a crucial year for both Burma and ASEAN. 2014, it would be just only one year before the general election in Burma," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun. "The fact that the Burmese leadership want the ASEAN chairmanship so much is because this could legitimize the regime so as to be able to win the election in 2015. People might not think it's important but it's very important in the context of Burmese politics. To be able to open up the country, to bring a lot of potential ASEAN investors including the ASEAN dialogue partners, this would be a time to showcase Burma. So it would be very much important for Burma.”

Pavin says, by the same token, ASEAN will be just as eager to ensure that Burma’s chairmanship runs smoothly. And, that may mean the priorities for other issues, like human rights, may fall by the wayside.

You May Like

Video Getting to Zero AIDS Infections

More than 35 million people around the world are infected with HIV, a disease that is both preventable and treatable

Children, Childhoods Lost in European Refugee Crisis

According to UNICEF, 190,000 children applied for political asylum in Europe in the first 9 months of this year - twice as many as last year

What Happened When I Landed in Antarctica

Refael Klein chronicles what it's like to visit one of the coldest, most desolate places on Earth

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs