Myanmar took on the chairmanship of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Jan. 1, assuming this high-profile role at an important time for the regional bloc. Its ambitious integration program is gathering steam, though political turmoil—particularly in Thailand—and internal divisions over how to deal with China’s economic influence present formidable challenges to the group’s cohesion. Not surprisingly, then, the theme of Myanmar’s chairmanship is “moving forward in unity toward a peaceful and prosperous community.”
But Myanmar’s chairmanship also comes at a critical time for the country itself, having only recently emerged from international isolation. Domestically, much attention this year will be devoted to preparations for the highly anticipated 2015 national elections, expected—or hoped—to be the culmination of the political reform agenda that began in 2011. The three issues at the top of the list in Myanmar are the constitutional review, the peace process and the rise of sectarian violence.
The first and most visible issue is reform of the oft-criticized 2008 constitution, which was introduced under the former military regime before the 2010 elections. In July 2013, parliament formed a committee to assess possible amendments to the constitution. The 109-member committee is dominated by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (52 members) and military (25 members), in addition to having seven members from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and 25 from small political parties. This composition leaves the committee open to criticism of being overly favorable to the ruling party.