Myanmar’s place at Asem ‘not Asean’s call’

Meeting involves individual countries not blocs, says Alatas

INDONESIAN Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said it was not Asean’s call to decide whether Myanmar should join the second Asia-Europe meeting (Asem II) in London next year, and stressed that Asem was not a meeting between the two regional groupings.

“There may be some confusion on this matter. Asem is a forum made up of individual countries. It is not based on different regional groupings,” he told The Straits Times after a Cabinet meeting here.

He added that it would be wrong to see Asem in the same light as, for example, the Asean-European Union dialogue where links were on a grouping-to-grouping basis.

Asem now links Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, China and South Korea with the 15-member EU. The first meeting last year was in Thailand.

Mr Alatas said he was surprised British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had raised the issue of Myanmar’s entry into Asem – comments which drew a strong response from Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The Malaysian leader, who said discrimination against Yangon amounted to “discrimination against Asean”, said Asean could boycott the meeting if Myanmar was barred.

He clarified later that he was not speaking on behalf of Asean.

Mr Cook had said in Singapore that Myanmar would not be allowed to attend if its military leaders did not take steps to improve its human-rights record and curb its drug trade.

He also noted that sanctions against the ruling junta by the EU, which denies visas to Myanmar’s ministers and officials, would make it impossible for them to attend.

Mr Alatas said while Myanmar would participate automatically in the Asean-EU dialogue as it was now part of Asean, this was not the case for Asem.

He said Asean had not discussed Myanmar’s membership in Asem but if it did, other Asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea would have to be included in the decision-making process.

“Discussions will have to include all the other Asian members, not just the Asean countries,” he said.

The same procedure would be used to admit other potential Asem members such as Australia, New Zealand, India and Pakistan, he added.

In Bangkok, a senior Thai official was quoted by The Nation newspaper as saying that Dr Mahathir’s judgement on the Myanmar and Asem issue “was a bit premature”.

Asem was “an intergovernmental conference and not a block-to-block meeting”, he said.

“There has been no consensus reached among Asean about new members to Asem,” said the official, who monitors Asean-EU relations.

Citing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum as an example, he said Vietnam, which joined Asean in 1995, was not accepted automatically into Apec.

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