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.

'Political dignity'

Myanmar was forced to renounce the rotating ASEAN presidency in 2006 because of the military regime's failure to shift to democracy.

But it has skipped ahead of Laos to take the rudder this year, indicating an enthusiasm to showcase its revamped international image in the run up to crucial 2015 elections that are seen as a key litmus test of reforms.

Myanmar has won praise for its democratising efforts from the international community and has welcomed a series of global leaders, including United States President Barack Obama.

"Both the country and the people are now enjoying a high level of political dignity," Ye Htut told AFP.

The removal of international embargoes has also raised hopes of an economic boom in the country, left impoverished after decades of mismanagement by the junta.

Foreign firms, drawn by huge natural resources and an estimated 60 million potential consumers, are already dipping their toes into the market.

According to state newspaper New Light of Myanmar this week, foreign investment created 90,000 jobs in the 2013/14 financial year.

Rajiv Biswas, an economist at IHS Global Insight, said the country was "one of the last great frontier market opportunities for many Western firms", but problems including weak governance and poor infrastructure meant it was still a "challenging" business environment.

Naypyidaw bears the signs of the country's evolving aspirations.

The "Abode of Kings" rose out of remote scrubland after a sudden, costly, decision by the military to shift the capital from Yangon to Myanmar's parched central region in 2005.

Unconstrained by conventional notions of scale or design, the city sprawled across the tropical hinterland in an architectural smorgasbord of vast government buildings and hotels, linked by lonely multi-lane highways.

Once off-limits to the general public, Naypyidaw last year hosted thousands of visitors for the World Economic Forum on East Asia and the Southeast Asian Games.

Tending flower beds near the ASEAN conference centre, local labourer Aye Aye Aung said the changes in the capital had brought electricity to her village on the fringes of the city - but little else.

"Naypyidaw has improved. I hope our lives will also improve as the city develops," the 29-year-old told AFP.