A test of Asean cohesion

MYANMAR CRISIS

ASIA INTERVIEW

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, in a wide-ranging interview with Straits Times US Bureau chief Derwin Pereira in New York on Sunday, spoke at length about the crisis in Myanmar and Asean’s response to it. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.

Asean, in a tough statement last week, expressed revulsion at the violent repression of demonstrations in Myanmar. Does this mark a break from Asean’s policy of non-interference?

We decided that we were not in a position to defend Myanmar internationally about a year and a half ago. When, with Myanmar’s permission, Asean dispatched a special envoy to Myanmar in the person of Syed Hamid, it showed by the way they handled his visit that they’d rather deal with the UN than with Asean. We had to respond. We therefore decided that we could not have a common position in Asean to defend Myanmar in the UN or the International Labour Organisation (ILO) or anywhere else. Of course, each country would still have its own national position. It was not that we had no view on Myanmar. But we could no longer defend Myanmar internationally because we were not in a position to do so.

The recent events in Myanmar gave us no choice. We had to express our common emotion over what was happening there. If here at the UN we had no commonresponse, how could we face the Secretary-General? Or what do we say to the other countries? We would have lost all credibility. This was the decision we had to confront when we met. We did not arrange to meet over Myanmar. We had already arranged to meet months ago to finalise the Asean Charter, and indeed that was the first thing on our agenda. Tommy Koh and the task force did a very good job which enabled us to wrap things up quickly.

This gave us about an hour before our next appointment with the UN Secretary-General to settle our position on Myanmar. When I read out the statement, all the Foreign Ministers were with me to show everyone that they associated themselves with the statement. It became de facto the Asean position, a clear and strong position, which we delivered with a heavy heart.

It was a family meeting where we had to confront one member who had behaved badly. It was unpleasant but unavoidable. Whatever others may say, it remains for us that Myanmar is a member of the Asean family and, good or bad, we can’t avoid a certain association, a certain responsibility, a certain connection with the fate of that country. But we have very little leverage over the internal development there. What we have is moral influence as members of the Asean family. We can’t do what the big powers can do in terms of trade embargo or freezing of bank accounts.

Is it a significant shift in policy?

To the world, it might appear to be so. But to ourselves, no. For some time now, we have been telling Myanmar to adhere to its own road map to democracy, we have been calling on them to release Aung Sun Suu Kyi and other political detainees. It was for some time now a source of irritation.

Every time before we met, they would renew her detention notice. They said they were not doing it deliberately to irritate us but because it was at that time that her renewal notice came up for renewal. That explanation gave us no consolation. Every time Myanmar was raised, we heard the same old line about ethnic groups still being armed, the constitutional convention still in progress, and so on. The fact is the old way clearly no longer works. A fresh approach is needed. But that fresh approach, if it is to have any chance of success, requires national reconciliation. Mind you, this is not just the responsibility of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) government, it requires the other parties to cooperate and compromise. In a sense, they have been negotiating. The fact that the SPDC government had allowed Gambari on his earlier visits to see Aung Sun Suu Kyi was itself a signal that they were prepared to deal. And she has herself shown willingness to deal by receiving Gambari. But both sides took tough positions. Well, with the demonstrations and with the events that have taken place, the negotiating power relationship has shifted. With the world’s support, Aung Sun Suu Kyi now has a stronger position. But if either side presses its claims too hard, and takes brinkmanship too far, it can all come to grief.

One may argue that, in the end, history is on one side and not the other. But that suggests that things must get much worse before it gets better. What is the point of that? Many people will then have to die first. If we can find a way forward which engages all parties, then we minimise the pain, the violence and the hardship. It cannot be that we must first bring everything down and only from the ashes will a new Myanmar emerge. That cannot be the game plan. That is certainly not Asean’s game plan.

Does Asean have much influence over Yangon compared to countries like China and India?

Because Myanmar is a member of Asean, China and India feel much more comfortable if their positions on Myanmar are in line with Asean’s. Our strong reaction in New York has put some pressure on China and India also to readjust their positions. They do not want to be so far out of line with Asean that they look to the world as unreasonable.

Thant Myint-U, the grandson of U Thant, said in an interview with The Straits Times that regime change in Myanmar will lead to another Iraq. Do you agree; if so, what is the best way forward for Myanmar?

Although not easy, it is best for the parties involved to work towards national reconciliation. It is not just a matter between the SPDC government and Aung San Suu Kyi. The country has many ethnic groups, some of which are still heavily armed. Burmans make up only half the population. Unfortunately, there is not enough trust. This is why the work of Gambari is so important. Regime change is easier said than done. Without the military being a part of the solution, there can be no peaceful solution.

The turmoil in Myanmar comes at a time when Asean is about to launch moves for closer integration. Has the crisis tested the group’s cohesion and unity?

Absolutely. In fact, we discussed this openly among ourselves. We asked how we could possibly talk about Asean integration and dispute settlement mechanisms if we ducked such an important issue. If we did that, we would lose all credibility and respect. When we talked about Asean integration in the future, the international community would ignore us. We would feel ashamed when we looked ourselves in the mirror. So, the ministers were determined to look the challenge in the eyes and respond.

We had to hold our heads up high. When we assembled that morning, each of us had this feeling in himself but we were not sure about others. However, when we started talking, it became quickly clear that all of us felt the same way. For this reason, achieving consensus that morning was not difficult. There was some disagreement over whether it should be a joint statement or a chairman’s statement, but everyone agreed that it should be a joint Asean presentation. Instead of my going out alone to talk to the media, we brought the media in with all of us seated as a group.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

“It was a family meeting where we had to confront one member who had behaved badly. It was unpleasant but unavoidable. Whatever others may say, it remains for us that Myanmar is a member of the Asean family and, good or bad, we can’t avoid a certain association, a certain responsibility, a certain connection with the fate of that country.”

INCLUSION THE WAY FORWARD

“If we can find a way forward which engages all parties, then we minimise the pain, the violence and the hardship. It cannot be that we must first bring everything down and only from the ashes will a new Myanmar emerge. That cannot be the game plan. That is certainly not Asean’s game plan.”

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