Singapore, ASEAN must strongly condemn Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar’s opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest after an apparently uninvited visit by an American man.

This is clearly a flimsy excuse to extend her detention, which expires at the end of this month. These latest charges carry a penalty of 5 years imprisonment, which would stretch her detention beyond even the 2010 elections, effectively disqualifying her from contesting it.

She has been under house arrest under the country’s military regime for 11 of the past 19 years in since her party, the National League for Democracy, was elected to power in the last democratic elections in the former Burma.

Continue reading “Singapore, ASEAN must strongly condemn Myanmar”

Protestors storm ASEAN Summit hotel

Red shirted protestors loyal to deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra stormed the hotel where ASEAN leaders, including PM Lee, FM George Yeo and Trade Minister Lim Hng Kiang, were holding the annual ASEAN summit, prompting the Summit to be postponed indefinitely. The Thai government has declared a state of emergency.

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S’pore Ambassador calls for Myanmar’s suspension from ASEAN; MM calls generals "dumb"

Straits Times, Oct 6, 2007

Suspend Myanmar from Asean
By Barry Desker, For The Straits Times

LAST week’s crisis in Myanmar makes it imperative that Asean move beyond statements to action.

The 1997 Asean decision to admit Myanmar under the current military leadership without any conditionality was a mistake. Myanmar took shelter under Asean’s wings but there was no commitment by the junta to open up the economy or restore its fledgling democracy. Frankly, Myanmar has been an albatross around Asean’s neck for the past decade.

Asean broke new ground on Sept 27 when the Asean foreign ministers agreed to a statement by the current Asean chair, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, stating that they were appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used to quell the demonstrations in Myanmar and demanded that the Myanmar government immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators. They strongly urged Myanmar to seek a political solution and to work towards a peaceful transition to democracy, and called for the release of all political detainees, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Asean ministers recognised that what the junta has done is unacceptable. Asean should now go further. It is time that Myanmar was suspended from the privilege of Asean membership.

As Asean’s leaders will be adopting the Asean Charter to give the organisation a legal personality when they meet in Singapore on Nov 18, Asean needs to adopt clear standards of behaviour for its members.

Key provisions of the Charter will call for the promotion of democracy, human rights and obligations, transparency and good governance and strengthening of democratic institutions. But Asean needs to agree on what it will do if a member blatantly flouts these conventions.

Previously, it had adopted the practice of raising its discomfort with developments in Myanmar privately at meetings with Myanmar leaders and at informal retreats of Asean ministers, where no official records were kept.

Since its founding, Asean’s formal position was that every member had the right to lead its existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion. This principle of non-interference and non-intervention in the internal affairs of one another helped each state to develop its own identity in the first years of the grouping’s existence.

The primary concern of each member from 1967 was that it should be allowed to forge its own post-colonial identity.

Memories of Indonesia’s Konfrontasi policy towards Malaysia and hostility to post-independence Singapore, the bitter Singapore separation from Malaysia, the Philippines’ claim to Sabah and Thai fears of spillover from the conflicts in Indochina shaped Asean’s handling of domestic developments in the region. An emphasis on developing mutual confidence, understanding the different perspectives of each member and creating an awareness of the regional environment and regional sensitivities marked interactions in the early years.

In 1967, Asean leaders were more attuned to the political environment of the former metropolitan countries and needed to become familiar with their neighbours.

This process of developing cohesion and the habit of cooperation received a boost from the challenge posed by the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia in December 1978. Asean’s resolute response to the invasion and ability to build an international coalition opposed to the intervention marked a high point for the policy of non-interference. It meant supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia but it also led to international credibility and recognition for Asean as the only Third World regional grouping able to influence United Nations debates and shape the conflict negotiation process.

In 1967, a policy of non-interference and non-intervention also made sense to the post-colonial regimes in Southeast Asia as they were faced with domestic insurgencies by communist revolutionary movements assisted by China.

As the Asean states sought improved ties with China after the historic Nixon visit to China in 1971, calls for an end to Chinese support for the communist parties in the region were coupled with the need to uphold the principles of non- interference and respect for the sovereignty of the region’s states.

Forty years later, geopolitical realities have changed. The end of the Cold War undermined the logic of the policy of non-intervention and non-interference. Doctrines of humanitarian intervention and ‘the responsibility to protect’ are increasingly the basis of decision-making in the UN Security Council, especially as the impact of bloodshed and the consequences of riots, revolutions and bombings are covered hour by hour on television screens and in widely circulated blogs and on the Internet.

In 1988, the scale of the much larger crackdown by the Myanmar military only became known several weeks later. Today, these images are transmitted instantaneously around the world by mobile phones and YouTube.

As long as Myanmar is part of the highest councils of Asean, the region will have a credibility problem when it seeks to address issues of humanitarian concern elsewhere around the globe.

Not only is the junta a failure when it comes to ensuring Myanmar’s economic development, it has also failed to build a cohesive society or ensure a political transition from military rule.

Myanmar does not play an effective role within Asean either. When former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad succeeded in getting Asean approval for Myanmar’s admission in 1997, it was believed that Myanmar’s participation would lead to learning by example: As Myanmar interacted with Asean states, it would realise that outward-looking policies, increased foreign investment and expanded trade, tourism and other exchanges would lead it to move in the direction of a more open society increasingly integrated with the rest of South-east Asia. These hopes were soon dashed.

As the Singapore co-chair of the Singapore/Myanmar senior officials working group on economic issues, I realised in 1998 that we were going nowhere. As we were preoccupied with the Asian financial and economic crisis, we decided not to proceed with these meetings as our hosts were more interested in taking us on a week-long jaunt to gem mines and tourist attractions than engaging in serious exchanges on policy issues.

As Asean moves towards the establishment of an Asean Community based on the three pillars of a Security Community, a Socio-Cultural Community and an Economic Community, can it afford to have a member seen as having a government that has failed to ensure the well-being of its people not just recently but since it joined Asean?

Old Asean hands will say that Myanmar is part of Asean and should be a member. Yes, but only when Myanmar can uphold its commitments. Until then, the forthcoming Asean Summit should agree on the suspension of Myanmar’s membership.

The writer is Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Mr Barry Desker is not just the Dean of RSIS, but also a former Ambassador to Indonesia and the current Non-Resident Ambassador to the Vatican. Kudos to Ambassador Desker for taking this bold stand calling for Myanmar’s suspension from ASEAN!

ing Singapore’s public stand has been that Myanmar must remain within the ASEAN family no matter what, it is rather unusual for a former career diplomat and such a senior member of the Establishment to take this contrarian position. It is unlikely he would have “broken ranks” like this had he not gotten tacit support from many other members of the Establishment in Singapore.

In addition, MM Lee Kuan Yew was quoted in the Straits Times (to appear on 10 Oct) describing Myanmar’s ruling generals “as being rather ‘dumb’ when it comes to managing the country’s economy” and “will not be able to survive indefinitely”.

Already, several months ago, the Singapore Government decided it would not defend Myanmar at the UN any more because of its refusal to show any meaningful progress on its “Roadmap to Democracy”. Now, such strident calls from a “non-government academic” could be a prelude to an even more significant shift in Singapore’s public position on Myanmar.

There is no better time to ratchet up the pressure as now. If Singapore and ASEAN miss this window of opportunity to pressure the generals to compromise, we could be looking at another 20 years of brutal military suppression and economic disasters before the next uprising.

Indon to M’sia: "Rasa Sayang" is ours

M’sia urges Indonesia to drop plans to sue over folk song

A GOVERNMENT minister on Friday urged Indonesia to drop its claim of ownership over a Malay folk song used in Malaysia’s tourism campaign and focus instead on boosting bilateral ties.

The Indonesians have accused Malaysia of stealing the song Rasa Sayang, or Feeling of Love, from them and are considering suing.

Kuala Lumpur has rejected the allegations, which could spark a diplomatic row between the two neighbors.

Malaysian Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Rais Yatim warned that Jakarta’s plan to sue for copyright was immature and would setback bilateral ties.

The song has its roots in the Malay archipelago which includes Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand and Brunei, and is also sung by people in southern Africa and Sri Lanka, Mr Rais told reporters.

‘It is a backward move (to sue). Indonesia should have instead encouraged Rasa Sayang to be made the song of harmony for the Malay archipelago,’ he said.

[Read more]

We also sing that song in Singapore, especially during National Day season. I tend to agree with the Malaysians. That would be a perfect song for ASEAN unity.

"Texas Barbeque Gathering" must go ahead

ASEAN-U.S. meeting will be an important step to building stronger relations

Photo: AFP

In what is seen as a signal that Southeast Asia is still important to the U.S., President George W. Bush has invited the region’s leaders to his ranch in Texas for a barbeque — and presumably more substantive talks too.

Bush made this invitation on Sep 7 at the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Sydney, where leaders from 21 Asia-Pacific countries are gathered this week.

Many see Bush’s invitation as him making amends for skipping a high level summit with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was to be held in Singapore just before the APEC meeting. The Jakarta Post reported that Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said Bush “wanted to prove that his postponement of (the) Singapore summit on the way to attend the APEC summit did not reduce the U.S. commitment to ASEAN”.

Just a few weeks earlier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had, for the second time, skipped the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a security meeting between ASEAN ministers and their U.S., Russian, Chinese and Japanese counterparts.

All these no-shows by senior U.S. officials were seen as a snub to the region. U.S. officials insisted that it was due to scheduling difficulties — on each of these occasions, the U.S. leaders made last minute detours to the Middle East to deal with pressing security problems there.

However, many ASEAN leaders are concerned that ASEAN is getting relegated lower and lower in U.S. foreign policy and trade priorities, as the situation in Iraq and Israel-Palestine take centre stage, while remaining U.S. attention in Asia is getting diverted to rising giants China and India.

Going to Big Brother’s house?

Bush’s invitation to the ASEAN leaders to meet him together at his ranch has evoked mixed reactions. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described it as a “very good” move, with the government-controlled Straits Times boasting that Bush “reserves invitations to Texas as a diplomatic plum for close allies”[1].

Indonesian officials, however, were more cautious. They told The Jakarta Post that the location of the meeting in Texas could create the impression that “ASEAN leaders were ‘reporting back’ to a superior power”.[2]

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo was more circumspect. She told reporters that the meeting will be done “at the convenience” of ASEAN.

In most Asian family traditions, younger siblings are expected to visit the eldest sibling in his home during festive occasions like Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid ul-Fitr) — and not the other way around. While this protocol does not necessarily extend to international diplomacy, the cultural implications of Bush’s group invitation were probably lost on the President and his advisors.

The Myanmar Factor

Another reason for Bush and Rice skipping meetings with ASEAN could be because of the presence of Myanmar in the grouping. The Neo-cons in the Bush administration are understandably reluctant for their leaders to be seen sitting at the same table as the brutal military dictators who currently rule Myanmar. Hence, Bush’s latest invitation to the seven ASEAN leaders who were present at the APEC meeting could be a way for Bush to meet with just those countries he fancies, while excluding Myanmar, which the U.S. has been so openly critical about. Three ASEAN countries — Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos — are not APEC members.

In any case, the U.S. has a travel ban on leaders of the Myanmar junta and their family members. This makes it highly unlikely that it would allow any Myanmar leaders to attend the ASEAN-U.S. meeting in Texas. This could put ASEAN leaders in a quandary. ASEAN has up until now insisted on its principle that any meeting with ASEAN must include representatives from all its 10 member states. A previous ASEAN ministerial meeting with their European Union (EU) counterparts in The Netherlands got downgraded to “officials level” because the Dutch government refused to grant a visa to Myanmar’s Foreign Minister.

Whether ASEAN will insist on adhering to this principle this time around is unclear. Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda told The Jakarta Post that ASEAN leaders would first have to discuss the practicalities of responding to Bush’s invitation before reaching a decision on whether or not to accept. However, Singapore, the current chair of ASEAN, has already promised to “coordinate a time for the meeting”.

Working Out the Practicalities of the Meeting

The practicalities of the ASEAN leaders’ meeting with Bush in Texas can and definitely should be worked out. For example, instead of naming it an ASEAN-U.S. meeting, it could be billed as a meeting between the U.S. president and several Southeast Asian leaders. Alternatively, the U.S. could allow a low level Myanmar official to represent Myanmar at the meeting, while extending invitations to the remaining ASEAN heads of government. In any case, top Myanmar junta leaders seldom travel out of the country except to seek medical treatment.

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Much at stake with U.S.-ASEAN relations

For most pragmatists in ASEAN, the decision whether or not to proceed with the high level meeting with Bush (with or without Myanmar) is a no brainer. The U.S. is ASEAN’s biggest trading partner. Beyond trade, U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia is critical to maintaining the balance of power in East Asia. A rising China is actively courting ASEAN with its lucrative offers of increased trade and diplomatic links. While all ASEAN countries welcome China’s interest in the region, most of them would still prefer the U.S. to continue maintaining a strong presence in the region.

ASEAN leaders need to find a way to generate greater U.S. interest in the region. Likewise, the U.S. also needs to realise that much is at stake if they lose their focus on ASEAN, which is home to over half a billion people and is the fourth largest trading partner of the U.S.. The U.S. shares many concerns with ASEAN, from the long-running fight against terrorism to more recent concerns like environmental protection and bird flu.

It would be unfortunate if relations were held back because of the Myanmar millstone or U.S. pre-occupation with events in the Middle East. This proposed Texas retreat will be an important step in the right direction to build stronger relations between ASEAN and the U.S.. All parties will do well not to pass up this opportunity.

This article first appeared in OhmyNews International.

[1] “Asean leaders get an invite to Texas from Bush”, The Straits Times, Sep 8, 2007.

[2] “Bush’s Texas invite leaves APEC leaders in an awkward silence”, The Jakarta Post, Sep 8, 2007.

M’sia’s bumi policy threatens ASEAN-EU FTA

Last week, Thierry Rommel, the European Union (EU)’s ambassador to Malaysia, openly criticised Malaysia’s New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP (commonly termed the “bumiputera policy”) is a 37-year old affirmative action programme in Malaysia that favours ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups in government contracts and education.

While the criticism and the perfunctory backlash from Malaysian leaders is rather unremarkable, what caught my eye was when Rommel warned the NEP could “lead to problems” in free trade negotiations between the EU and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Malaysia is a key member. The EU and ASEAN agreed last month to launch free trade talks, which could raise ASEAN’s exports to the EU by up to 20 percent. Senior officials are expected to hold their first meeting in Vietnam next month.

While I believe that the NEP is something for Malaysians to argue about amongst themselves, I am concerned that this policy may affect a very important free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU, which is the world’s most important trading bloc. I do not think Rommel would have risked the wrath of Malaysia if he didn’t think this was a serious enough issue. As if ASEAN didn’t already have enough roadblocks to the FTA like Myanmar’s military junta and EU agricultural protectionism, now it appears Malaysia’s NEP threatens to be another roadblock to sealing this important FTA.

Links: Malaysiakini report