Myanmar's President Thein Sein (L), the next chairman of the ASEAN Summit, raises the ASEAN Gavel after receive it from Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah during the Closing Ceremony of the 23rd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, October 10, 2013.
Zakir Hussain, Indonesia Bureau Chief in Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei) IN LESS than two months' time, a brand new sports complex in Naypyidaw will play host to the opening ceremony of the South-east Asian Games, Myanmar's first in 44 years.
Hotels and restaurants have sprung up in Myanmar's capital, barely eight years old, to cater to visitors from nine other ASEAN countries in what officials see as a test run for the country's debut chairmanship of the regional grouping from next January.
But Naypyidaw lacks direct international flights and Internet connectivity is weak.
A number of regional diplomats remain sceptical that Myanmar will be able to get in place all its physical infrastructure to host hundreds of meetings next year. But they hope its chairmanship of the 46-year-old grouping will move ASEAN forward as a community with a year to go before the end-2015 goal, and at a time when great-power rivalry in the region is set to intensify.
Myanmar's leadership of ASEAN comes as the country continues to embark on wide-ranging reforms after two decades of autocratic rule and Western sanctions that saw ASEAN's policy of engagement criticised and drove the country to defer taking its turn as chair seven years ago.
Its dramatic opening up of late has seen a flurry of investor interest and a construction boom, and its neighbours are pitching in to help.
"Several of the ASEAN-6 countries, including Singapore, have been working with Myanmar through bilateral and ASEAN programmes, to provide capacity- building support to officials at various levels involved in preparing for the slew of meetings in 2014," said Ms Moe Thuzar, a former Myanmar diplomat, and now coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
ASEAN-6 refers to the six more developed member states including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei.
Singapore has conducted courses for Myanmar officials in protocol and conference work, public administration and business communications, among others.
Singapore businesses have also been involved in projects in Naypyidaw as it gears up for ASEAN meetings. The businesses include lighting firm Krislite, which is fitting out a new convention centre. Its director Sims Teo notes that overall, the city's infrastructure for the next ASEAN summit is progressing ahead of schedule.
But Myanmar may find the finer points of chairmanship more challenging. Ms Moe Thuzar said: "Myanmar will need to consult fellow ASEAN members to ensure that chairmanship also equals leadership."
Observers believe Myanmar is mindful about not wanting a repeat of the debacle at last year's ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh, which for the first time failed to agree on a communique under what many saw as pressure from China to avoid specific mention of disputes in the South China Sea.
But analysts feel question marks linger over whether it can adopt a sufficiently independent diplomatic posture even after its recent reforms that have seen it renew ties with the US.
"It is clear that by opening up, Myanmar wanted to reduce its economic dependence on China," Mr Vishnu Juwono of the University of Indonesia told The Straits Times. But he notes that the leadership is also under pressure to "show quickly the economic benefit of political reforms".
Myanmar journalists and commentators have acknowledged what their diplomats privately admit could affect their chairmanship. "I feel worried we will not be able to fulfil the responsibilities of the chair. There are still communal violence and fighting with militias, and we have little experience holding big events," said Mr Zayyar Nanda, political editor at Eleven media group.
But Myanmar's Foreign Ministry has begun efforts to assure others, especially those in Muslim- majority Malaysia and Indonesia, that violence between Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state is under control.
The ministry's website has a 24-page booklet on efforts for peace, stability and development in the state. And a short promotional video shown to ASEAN leaders in Brunei last week as Myanmar accepted the chairmanship had prominent footage of Buddhists and Muslims worshipping peacefully.
And Myanmar President Thein Sein has said he would not let ASEAN be divided: "At a time when our citizens and the entire world are watching closely, it is extremely crucial for us to show unity in fulfilling our common objectives."
Others are also determined to ensure Myanmar's leaders succeed, with ASEAN secretary-general Le Luong Minh pledging the secretariat's help for Myanmar's chairmanship.
Placing the grouping's high hopes on Myanmar to pull it off, he told The Straits Times: "Whether we will have a celebration in 2015 or not depends on what we can achieve in 2014."
Additional reporting by Andrea Ong
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