Welcome Remarks by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed at Asian Mediators' Retreat, 27 Nov 2006

27 November 2006

Mr Martin Griffiths 
Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue

Ambassador K. Kesavapany
Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to be here this evening to warmly welcome you to Singapore.

2 I commend the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre) and the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) for convening the Asia Mediators' Retreat. Last year, Singapore hosted the first of such retreats outside of Oslo, Norway. We are happy to host this important dialogue again, among senior practitioners of conflict mediation in the region.

3 There are among you senior representatives and experts from Asia, the US, and Europe; key institutions such as the United Nations, ASEAN and the World Bank; or NGOs. This diversity shows that states and organisations across the world have a stake in Asia's stability and growth, and that leaders from key spheres of public life have a role in conflict resolution and peace-building.

4 I am heartened to note that the HD Centre has set up an office in Singapore. May I take this opportunity to offer my warmest congratulations to Mr Griffiths and Mr Michael Vatikiotis, who heads this office. I hope that various sectors in Singapore, including the government, NGOs, as well as the academic and research community will contribute to the HD Centre's work. Through this office, the region can now benefit even more from the HD Centre's expertise, built up over years of first-hand involvement in sensitive negotiations. Your efforts in Aceh helped lay the ground for the landmark MOU between the Indonesian Government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 2005. Your work in Myanmar, Nepal and the Philippines are well-known.

5 This evening, I would like to share with you some thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for conflict prevention and resolution in Asia.

6 The Asian Development Bank recently revised its growth forecast for Asia upwards, to 7.7% for 2006. For Southeast Asia, the forecast is a respectable 5.4%. For six consecutive years, Asia has witnessed continuous growth and remains the fastest growing region in the world.

7 Yet, Asia is also the site of numerous potential flashpoints, including North Korea, Taiwan, Kashmir, and the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, the Southern Philippines and Southern Thailand face varying degrees of challenges to their peace and stability.

8 While Asia as a region has not been overwhelmed or defined by these potential flashpoints, this is not to say that they should or could be swept under the carpet. In fact, this is precisely why we need to keep a close watch on the trouble spots. Any of these issues could quickly affect a number of countries, if not the entire region. On the other hand, it would be simplistic to say that Asia has grown despite these challenges.

9 The factors that underpin the pro-growth strategies of countries in the region, are the same ones that motivate them to manage conflicts, and seek to resolve them through peaceful means. It is important to appreciate and nurture these tendencies behind Asia's resilience.

10 While Asia is a region of diverse countries with different histories, cultures and political systems, I would argue that there is, in general, a strong bias towards economic development that has led states to choose growth and peaceful coexistence over conflict. This was clear in two key periods in the region's recent history. The first was during the post-World War II and decolonisation period that saw the birth of ASEAN; and the second, in the last years of the Cold War and its aftermath, which saw major countries in the region such as China, India and Vietnam radically change their economic policies and open up their markets.

11 The strategic importance of the region and the high stakes involved have also encouraged the big powers to work together for peaceful solutions to problems. This is clear in the pragmatic and well-calibrated positions of China and the US on Taiwan, and the shared interests of the key players for continued six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear problem.

12 The shared interests of major powers in the Asia Pacific have also allowed for increased regionalisation and economic integration. This will continue to provide a positive context for the management, containment and resolution of conflicts in the region. ASEAN is making good progress towards integration. In 2003, ASEAN leaders agreed to establish an ASEAN Community, and ASEAN is in the process of drafting ts Charter. These developments will further entrench the commitment of ASEAN countries to economic growth, social progress, and regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law.

13 ASEAN will evolve to meet the needs of its members in a changing environment. But it will move at a pace and in the direction that is comfortable to its members. To me, ASEAN's greatest achievement has been to support a period of stability and prosperity in the region which has not seen any inter-state armed conflicts among ASEAN members.

14 We believe that a strengthened ASEAN will in turn enable us to act as an anchor for political and economic cooperation among the key powers in Asia. Even during tense periods in their relations, leaders in the region find themselves sitting across the table at ASEAN, ASEAN+3, ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and APEC fora where confidence is gradually rebuilt as they are reminded of the stakes and opportunity afforded by peace, rather than conflict. In parallel with our commitment to the WTO, countries are discussing proposals for East Asia and Asia Pacific wide FTAs. This could be attributed in no small part to the solidarity and clear vision of ASEAN for peace and economic development. (I shall not dwell on developments in ASEAN as the Secretary-General will be speaking on this later.)

15 Moving back to resolving bilateral differences between states, the preference among countries would be to settle them through consultation and negotiation. However, where that is not possible, Southeast Asian countries have also sought third party adjudication or arbitration as useful mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution. The competing claims by Malaysia and Indonesia over Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan were settled at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Similarly, the land reclamation dispute between Singapore and Malaysia was put before the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, which facilitated an amicable settlement that both sides saw as fair and balanced. The two countries have also jointly submitted the issue of sovereignty over Pedra Branca to the ICJ.

16 However, there are clearly a myriad of intra-state conflicts, particularly those involving irredentist movements, which cannot be easily resolved or adequately managed by states alone. If an evolving regional architecture is only just now providing new structures for engagement in the Post-Cold War era, we are far from establishing effective institutions and norms to resolve these conflicts. Yet, given the growing complexities of these times, there is no one template to suit all occasions. The way forward would be to continue establishing a web of channels to address issues, by involving a range of players. These could include the United Nations, high-level diplomacy, and key groups such as the HD Centre. At the opportune time, the right mechanisms could then be activated to resolve particular conflicts.

17 The UN has seen important reforms such as the new Peace-building Commission. The UN's Department of Political Affairs has also spearheaded initiatives like the newly established Mediation Support Unit. Taken together, these initiatives will enhance the UN's overall capacity for conflict prevention and peace-building. The UN's close cooperation with Cambodia was crucial to the country's nation-building efforts, and its ongoing engagement with Myanmar will continue to be highly critical.

18 And there is much more to be done. ASEAN countries are deeply interested in the well-being and security of fellow members. We stand ready to help where it would be useful for us to do so. Indonesia, with the OIC, played an instrumental role in the conclusion of the 1996 agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Malaysian PM Abdullah Badawi's proposal to initiate another round of talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), at the personal request of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is a welcome move.

19 For Aceh, we are hopeful that the local elections scheduled for December will sustain the momentum for a gradual rehabilitation of Aceh. Singapore and other ASEAN countries are participating in the Aceh Monitoring Mission. The Thai government has made fresh moves to engage the people in Southern Thailand. Myanmar remains a challenge for many of us. ASEAN has consistently encouraged the Myanmar government along the path of national reconciliation. It has, however, indicated clearly that it prefers to deal with its own domestic situation. ASEAN will continue to offer to help but Myanmar will first have to demonstrate its seriousness in wanting ASEAN's assistance. We welcome the developing dialogue between Myanmar and the UN through visits by UN Undersecretary for Political Affairs Mr Ibrahim Gambari. This is an opportunity for Myanmar, and its leadership should show concrete progress towards the resolution of the country's internal challenges. Apart from ASEAN, the UN and NGOs, it is critical to have more positive engagement by countries with strong influence in Myanmar, such as China and India.

20 In conclusion, the region has been resilient in the face of challenges. However, Asia's continued growth is not pre-ordained. The region will have to manage and resolve its most intractable conflicts; peace and security, in turn, could only be sustained in an environment of economic and socio-cultural development. Your discussions at this Retreat will provide invaluable insights on the challenges and opportunities for successful mediation of conflicts in Asia.

21 I wish you all a fruitful and successful Retreat.

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27 NOVEMBER 2006


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