Myanmar showcases reforms at diplomatic debut

Myanmar showcases reforms at diplomatic debut

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar - Myanmar will parade its once isolated capital to international leaders this weekend, hosting a landmark summit of Southeast Asia's regional bloc as reforms see the country strut onto the world stage.

Teams of local workers plucked weeds from manicured lawns while police practised security checks on convoys of proxy diplomatic cars in Naypyidaw late Friday, in last minute preparations for the arrival of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of Sunday's meeting.

"We are now fine-tuning, everything is ready," Myanmar government spokesman Ye Htut told AFP.

The summit is the first top level function held as part of Myanmar's year-long ASEAN chairmanship - a debut for the country, despite its 17-year membership of the bloc, because rights concerns during the former junta era kept it on the sidelines.

A new quasi-civilian regime that took power in 2011 has thrust the country into the international limelight, with reforms including freeing political prisoners and welcoming opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament.

Myanmar has taken the ASEAN helm under the slogan "Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community".

But its first major diplomatic role is likely to be dominated by regional tensions after tempers flared this week between Beijing and ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea.

Hanoi on Wednesday accused Chinese ships of attacking Vietnamese patrol vessels near a controversial oil rig in contested waters.

On the same day, Philippine police said they had seized a Chinese fishing boat elsewhere in the sea.

The sea is crisscrossed by strategically important shipping lanes and vast potential energy reserves.

China, which claims sovereign rights to almost all of the disputed waters, said it was in the right in both cases.

Beijing has long been the largest investor in Myanmar and was a rare ally during the country's years in the diplomatic wilderness under the junta.

But Myanmar should strive not to let its close relationship with China "mar its neutral and even-handed leadership", said Simon Tay, chairman of think-tank Singapore Institute of International Affairs, adding that this would "not be easy".

In 2012, Beijing ally Cambodia caused consternation when it was ASEAN head by refusing to take China to task over its assertive maritime stance.

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