Important to avert violence: George Yeo


As Asean chairman, S’pore is using quiet diplomacy to defuse tension in Myanmar

SINGAPORE, as chairman of Asean, is making efforts to help calm the situation in Myanmar, avert violence and get the country back on the path of national reconciliation.

Describing the present standoff between the military and the people as a “new phase requiring a new approach”, Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo said that unless utmost restraint was exercised, there could be a “serious situation on our hands”.

Mr Yeo, who is here for the UN General Assembly with his counterparts from the regional grouping, has been working behind the scenes to forge an Asean stand on the crisis.

Myanmar will clearly be the top issue on the agenda for Asean foreign ministers when they get together on the sidelines of the UN meeting. They were due to meet late yesterday.

Officials noted that member states will be dealing with the crisis amid the backdrop of international furore created by the military junta’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

And the priority would be to end the bloodshed.

“I do not know how it can be done but what is important now is to avert violence,” Mr Yeo said in an interview with The Straits Times.

“Force has already been used and people have died. Unless utmost restraint is shown, we can have a serious situation on our hands. It will be a tragedy for the people of Myanmar. And it will be a setback for Asean, and indeed China and India as well.”

Mr Yeo has been taking the lead by engaging in quiet diplomacy. He has been in touch with several Asean foreign ministers, including his Myanmar counterpart Nyan Win, whom he called on Wednesday morning.

“I told him ‘look, it is very important that all parties make use of Gambari’s visit to find a way forward’,” he said.

“Unfortunately, he told me that he had difficulty contacting his capital. I am not sure why. I can understand that the present situation is a confused one back home.”

Mr Ibrahim Gambari is the UN envoy to Myanmar. Mr Yeo met the envoy on Tuesday and offered him assistance if he needed any. “He can count on us.”

Mr Gambari is now attempting to go to Yangon, awaiting authorisation from the junta to enter the country.

Mr Yeo praised Mr Gambari as someone with great diplomatic skills, having won the trust of both the Yangon government and opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

“The important thing is to back Gambari and to help the Myanmar people towards national reconciliation,” he said. “And they need to find a fresh way forward.

The old approach can no longer work.”

Mr Yeo also tried to attend a UN Security Council which held an informal meeting on Myanmar early yesterday. The council, however, does not allow non- members to attend its meetings.

Undeterred, he approached Mr Hassan Wirayudah, the Foreign Minister of Indonesia – now a non-permanent member of the council – with a request that he represent the views of Asean at the meeting.

Mr Yeo revealed that as Asean chairman – Singapore assumed the rotating chair from the Philippines in July – he might issue a statement on Myanmar after the New York meeting with his Asean counterparts, which was originally scheduled to finalise a draft charter.

Mr Yeo said that Asean had to take a “very realistic position to keep Myanmar within the Asean family because it is in everybody’s interest” to do so.

Asked what Asean would do if the junta became increasingly repressive in the weeks to come, he had this to say: “If national reconciliation is not possible and there is repression and violence where many people die, then it is a new situation all over again. Asean can issue statements and Asean can shed tears.

“But at that point in time, it will be a fight within Myanmar itself.”

“The important thing is to back Gambari and to help the Myanmar people towards national reconciliation. And they need to find a fresh way forward. The old approach can no longer work.”

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