Posted: June 11th, 2012 | Author: Marian | Filed under: Asia-Pacific, Economics, International Business, International Relations, Politics, Thailand
Last week the highly regarded World Economic Forum on East Asia took place in Bangkok. By leaders like Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s Prime Minister, and Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democrat-icon and opposition leader, the event was classified as: “Very successful”. However a view on its history can be helpful to understand the WEF’s purpose as the Forum’s outcome cannot be measured in form of a contract or something else that is tangible and concrete.
The Forum was founded in 1971, by Klaus Schwab a German born professor in Davos, Switzerland and originally was named the “European Management Forum”. However its name was changed to the World Economic Forum in 1987 as a change of focus took place early on. In 1973 participants of the meeting discussed the collapse of the Bretton Woods fixed-exchange rate mechanism and the Arab-Israeli War. Thus the annual meeting clearly expanded its focus from management to economic and social issues. Next political leaders were invited for the first time to the annual meeting in 1974. As the years went by, political leaders began to use the annual meeting as a neutral platform to resolve their differences: The Davos Declaration was signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey, helping them to turn back from the brink of war. In 1992, South African President F. W. de Klerk met with Nelson Mandela and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the annual meeting, which marked their first joint appearance outside South Africa. At the 1994 annual meeting, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat reached a draft agreement on Gaza and Jericho. Over the years the single event in Davos spread over the world and now more regional events take place such as the World Economic Forum on East Asia. This year’s event was the 21st edition.
As said the event does not have a clearly measurable outcome, but however has great value as it accumulated the regional leaders and best minds out of a wide range of fields who discussed the future of the region. The emphasis was twofold, to socialize and to exchange ideas. Within this year’s Forum the parts that will stick to mind the most were the discussion about Risk Management within the ASEAN region and even more the first international journey of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The discussion about Risk Management within the ASEAN region ranged from natural disasters and terrorism to economics and financials. This topic is of particular interest, because in recent years South East Asia was hit by quite some natural disaster, e.g. last year’s massive floods in Thailand and the Tsunami in 2004 that devastated half South East Asia. In coping with these disasters the region was frankly overstrained. Next to that the region has to fight with terrorism. Best examples here are the bombings in Bangkok a couple of months ago, the ongoing fights in Southern Thailand and the Bali bombing disaster in 2002. When it comes to economics and financials a look to the Euro crisis will explain enough why for a region that is about to form a single market this topic should have prime concern. In this respect it should as well be mentioned that the current ASEAN Blueprint 2015 (a “Roadmap” towards forming an Economic Community) only has half of page in it about financials!
To tackle above mentioned issues, supporting economic growth, participants agreed, was a key part of better risk management: “If you have a strong and solid economy, that is the foundation for you to have the means to deal with shocks,” said Idris Jala, Minister at the Office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, adding that ASEAN countries should focus on six to ten sectors each to build expertise and fuel growth. Idris Jala, as well called for greater cooperation on a regional level. “ASEAN countries need to come together and list the major shocks, then provide a framework and money,” he said.
Jane Harman, Director, President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, USA, said that there had to be better cooperation between the public and private spheres, stating that poor communication between the two had hampered the response to Hurricane Katrina. What’s more, she said: “Resilience (to risk) requires getting the public in different countries prepared. Decisions have to go down to the grass roots level.” Additionally in a World Economic Forum Facebook poll on how East Asia can improve its resilience to risk, the majority of respondents selected “improving access to quality education”, followed by “urban planning and investment in infrastructure.”
The second major event that took place was the first international visit of Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time in 24 years. The Lady or Mae Suu (Mother Suu) as she was called by Burmese refugees in Thailand last Saturday, impressed not only the audience at the World Economic Forum, but as well Burmese immigrants and refugees.
Burmese people have a long history of moving (often illegally) to Thailand for better job opportunities or as war refugees. As was pointed out during a Foreign Correspondents Club’s conference with Amnesty International, two months ago, often the situation for these migrant workers is rather poor. Reasons mentioned were, next to the abysmal working conditions, the inequality compared to Thai citizens when it comes to seeking justice and the protection of police. One dramatic case stated was that of a migrant woman who was raped after her husband was shot dead. The woman however trusted the Thai police so little that she did not even report the crime.
In that light Suu Kyi called publicly to improve the migrant workers treatment and as well draw attention to the refugee’s camp in Thailand, which is, according to Suu Kyi, in bitter need of remedy healthcare and education. This comes at a time where sponsors recently planned to cut their aids.
At the Forum itself Suu Kyi urged the world to keep pressure on the Burmese military government so that their political and economic reforms remain “irreversible”. She further continued that the international community could influence reforms as she is not sure what the military government has in mind: “I can’t read their minds. We all have to make sure that they keep their word,” she said. As for her country attracting investments, she said investors should monitor what is going on in the country, especially since much of the reform depends on national commitment. By that she reiterated once again that only economical concessions towards Burma should be made if the government shows ongoing progress towards democracy. In that context she also welcomed the suspension of some sanctions from the US and named them “a reward for good behavior”. Furthermore she called for further establishing the rule of law in Burma as well as fighting corruption and income inequality.
The world can look forward with anticipation whether Burma is doing well in its ongoing progress of change. At the moment it looks all very promising, but it must not be forgotten that tremendous changes usually are not done over night. Next to that it must be noted that within the country still quite some influential forces are in place which won’t be perfectly happy with current developments towards democratization, namely key players of the former military regime. However the international community has opened their arms to welcome Burma in their middle. Best example is that at the end of the World Economic Forum on East Asia 2012 the Burmese application to host next year’s WEF was accepted. Furthermore Burma will be the Chair of ASEAN in 2014. These events will be good opportunities to measure Burma’s degree of change.