Thu 28 Apr 2005
Filed under: News,Opinion
April 27: The prickly question of Burma’s assumption of the Asean chair next year has been deferred to the formal Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting in Vientiane in July.
The 10 Asean foreign ministers made this decision during their recent retreat in Cebu, the Philippines.
Many people within and outside the region were most disappointed that nothing more assertive came out of Cebu. It is fair assumption that others were also shaking their heads and muttering, with some disdain no doubt, that they were not at all surprised by the outcome.
However, a small group of close watchers of the Asean scene see the picture from a different perspective and are not unhappy over the turn of events. These realists see Cebu as part of a process and not a finality. They see advantage in the time gap between the last meeting in Cebu and the next in Vientiane.
These Asean watchers, dubbed as such for want of a name, understand well that the Burmese situation is an extremely complex one and recognise the imperative need to treat Burma with the respect a sovereign nation and an Asean member country rightly deserves.
At the same time, they are clear in their minds that Burma should no longer be allowed to shy away from its regional responsibility which the membership of Asean demands. The ball is now squarely in the Burmese court and a statesman-like response is expected from a country which previously had a proud tradition of holding its head high.
These Asean watchers, who are conscious of the part national pride plays in the psyche of the Burmese leaders, take statements from them quite seriously, in particular, the recent one that Burma “is not a selfish country”.
This is seen as a critical and a telling statement by the Asean watchers who seriously believe that Burma has the capacity to harness the political will to demonstrate its sincerity as an unselfish regional player.
No rancour in Cebu
As a backgrounder, these Asean watchers understand that an Asean retreat, like the one in Cebu, is quite unlike a formal Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting, where the ministers are accompanied by their ambassadors, senior officials and experts and a host of note-takers and other flunkies.
At the retreat, only the 10 foreign ministers are present. The only outsider is a note-taker. Here the gloves are off. Traditional Southeast Asian subtleties and shadow play are not in fashion. The discussions can be brutally frank as each minister details his concerns. There is no rancour.
The Asean watchers believe that was precisely what had happened at Cebu. At no time before would the nine other foreign ministers have collectively bared their souls in such a manner to Burma.
At the end of the day the foreign ministers accepted that Burma had to decide for itself the course it was prepared to undertake and, as Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said, Burma would naturally have to bear the consequences of its actions.
To the Asean watchers, therefore, deferring the decision to July is a solution that gives ‘face’ to Burma. Its foreign minister would have faithfully conveyed the tenor of the Cebu discussions to the other leaders at home.
Burma has sufficient time before Vientiane to either accelerate its reform time-table or rise above ‘selfish’ national concerns and think regional.
Annual alphabetical ritual
In this context, two extremely important points need to be made. First, about this ‘bad precedent’ card which provides a straw of hope for Burma. Some commentators have said that if Burma does not assume the chairmanship, it would set a ‘bad precedent’ for Asean.
The Asean watchers note that there is much confusion here. Interfering in the domestic affairs of a member country is indeed a bad precedent – persuading Burma to skip its turn as chairperson is certainly not.
Asking Burma to leave the grouping altogether is an unacceptable precedent but, to repeat, asking Burma to wait until it has sorted out its domestic problems before assuming the chairmanship, is not.
A quick explanation is needed.
Asean chairmanship is an annual alphabetical ritual, not a sacred cow. There is undoubtedly a certain prestige in the position but this is secondary. The basic requirement of the chairperson is to be the interface with the dialogue partners and, in effect, with the rest of the world.
Which CEO anywhere, even in Burma, would appoint as an interface someone his organisation’s friends and important clients are unwilling or unhappy to relate to?
Second, a word of caution about grandstanding. Here the Asean watchers are concerned and hope that the US and Europe and their friends could do better than jump the gun and make threatening statements about non-attendance, etc. This is not helpful at all and is more likely to be counterproductive.
Neither the Asean watchers nor the government in Burma are impressed by these threats. This is just unnecessary distraction at a time when such distractions are not needed. The period between Cebu and Vientiane is better left for quiet diplomacy.
In this context, close and trusted friends of Burma should quietly and privately encourage Burma to think big, to be regional and be statesman-like. China and India have each a definite role here. Will they help Burma and its people?
VERGHESE MATHEWS, formerly Singapore’s ambassador to Cambodia, is currently a Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.