PHNOM PENH: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong believes that Asean took the right approach with Myanmar when it chose to engage rather than isolate it, as some in the West tried to do with sanctions.
Such sanctions do not help the country make the needed transformation and difficult changes, he said yesterday, as he reiterated Asean's call for them to be lifted.
Asean had for years insisted on keeping Myanmar as a member of the regional bloc, despite pressure from Western nations to boot it out, and also agreed to allow it to take over the Asean chair in 2014.
Said Mr Lee: 'I would say it is not because of Asean's approach that Myanmar has done these (reforms). But we took the right approach in keeping Myanmar in the family and working with Myanmar rather than try to ostracise and penalise it the way some of the Western countries have tried to do with sanctions'.
Making his first public comments on the country's historic by-elections on Sunday, the Singapore PM added: 'We are headed in the right direction. I hope this will help them to considerably improve the links with the world.'
Over the past year, the once-reclusive nation has surprised even critics with its reforms, such as freeing political prisoners including Ms Aung San Suu Kyi and holding by-elections that gave her party over 40 seats in Parliament.
'President Thein Sein has been much bolder than many observers have expected,' Mr Lee observed in an interview with Singapore media wrapping up the 20th Asean summit in Phnom Penh.
'Asean, of course, is happy that Myanmar has been able to take these steps forward. It's good for Myanmar and I think it's good for Asean too.'
Yesterday, Asean leaders formally called for the lifting of the sanctions - levied mainly by the European Union and the United States - in a closing statement that marked the end of the two-day summit. The next summit will be held later this year, also in Cambodia.
In the statement, Asean leaders pledged to intensify efforts to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving China and several Asean members.
Progress on the issue has been held up partly by differences within the regional grouping on how a binding code of conduct can be drawn up to govern activities in the waters.
For instance, China has agreed to work with Asean on drafting the code, but Asean members are divided over whether Beijing should take part in the talks from the start, or join only after the bloc agrees on the fundamentals.
Yesterday, while addressing fellow leaders at a retreat in the morning, Mr Lee called for the expeditious conclusion of the code, saying Singapore supports this.
'Asean should be united on this and not hold up progress on such an important issue,' he said.
In his speech, Mr Lee had also urged the region to move ahead to reach its 2015 integration goal to form a single market.
Elaborating on this during the media interview, he said that one way is for Asean to work on specific goals such as open skies and service pacts.
As for infrastructural projects which take a longer time, 'we can work out the agreements, then the implementation will be over a longer period of time', he said. '2015 is not the end of the world, but we would like to get things started.'
He added: 'The world is moving on, China and India are continuing to grow, and unless Asean shows that we are able to deliver on the projects which we are doing, especially major ones, I think people will start to wonder about the seriousness of the organisation.'