Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Myanmar connectionwith Korea

Two countries should forget past, start anew

Many Koreans have not so good a memory of Myanmar, or Burma as the Southeast Asian country was called formerly. It was where ex-President Chun Doo-hwan escaped North Korea’s assassination attempt by a hair’s breadth at the sacrifice of 17 ranking officials in 1983.

So President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Yangon Tuesday, the first one by a Korean leader in 29 years, showed the two countries were ready to put their diplomatic trauma behind them and rebuild a future-oriented relationship.

It also signified a diplomatic victory for Seoul, as Myanmar’s leaders appear set to shift their diplomatic allegiance from military cooperation with North Korea to economic ties with South Korea. We welcome all this development reflecting the epochal changes occurring in the Southeast Asian nation thanks in large part to ceaseless efforts of its democracy icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to normalize her country.

For South Korea, too, Myanmar, a strategically situated country with abundant natural resources, will prove to be both a valuable diplomatic partner and new growth engine. This may explain why the United States is also working hard to win the hearts of the people of Myanmar, as shown by its state secretary’s visit to the country for the first time in 50 years, as well as its need to check China’s influence in this part of the world.

Actually, South Korea is already the fourth largest investment destination in Southeast Asia for Korean businesses, following China, Hong Kong and Thailand, who invested $2.6 billion in the country last year. Still it was regrettable much of this investment concentrated on energy-resources development projects in the name of official development aid, inviting some criticism from NGOs involved in human rights and environmental affairs.

We hope the Seoul government will shift its diplomatic focus there from inter-Korean rivalry to economic ties, especially a more sustainable one.

President Lee was right to promise to help Myanmar achieve both democracy and industrialization at the same time, as his own country has done, in his meeting with opposition leader Suu Kyi. Both Korea and Myanmar were liberated from colonial rulers after World War II, experienced ideological conflicts and went under military dictatorship in the early 1960s. Somehow, one is now the world’s 14th largest economy and the other is one of the poorest countries.

By most appearances, Myanmar’s present situation compares better with North Korea than it does with South Korea.

What first motivated the country under socialist dictatorship to change was ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)’s tolerance to admit Myanmar as its member in 1997, despite strong opposition from the United States and Europe. Myanmar, which will assume rotating chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, will have no other choice but to put its various reform pledges into action by then. This was the victory of the ASEAN’s engagement policy, or, one might say, the Southeast Asian version of the Sunshine Policy.

It is hard of course to directly compare Myanmar with North Korea. Still the inevitable comparison leaves some bitter taste on what should otherwise be an event for pure celebration.

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