Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo's interview with Dow Jones on the ASEAN Ministerial Meetings, 16 July 2008
TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW OF MINISTER FOREIGN AFFAIRS GEORGE YEO WITH THE LOCAL MEDIA ON THE ASEAN MINISTERIAL MEETINGS, 16 JULY 2008 AT 10.00AM
Minister Yeo: Starting at the end of the week, we will begin our round of meetings. First, the ASEAN Ministerial Meetings, involving the Foreign Ministers and then the various meetings with our dialogue partners in different combinations, culminating in the ASEAN Regional Forum. It has been a long year, quite an eventful one year, under Singapore's Chairmanship. We knew that a key agenda item was the completion of the Charter, which was signed last December. That has got to be ratified now so that we can begin implementation. Seven countries have ratified it, leaving Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Myanmar has recently ratified it and we will be announcing it shortly. As for Indonesia and Thailand, I don't see any major difficulties.
But the Philippines remains a small question mark because of the position taken earlier by some of the Congressmen, some of the senators, that the ratification of the Charter will be contingent on Myanmar's good behaviour, which was a position many of us disagreed with because you only hold Myanmar to certain standards after the Charter has been ratified, but not before. But when I met one of the Filipino senators recently, he said it should be do-able. So, I am hopeful and my counterpart, Secretary Alberto Romulo is hopeful that the Philippines will ratify the Charter which means a good outcome at the coming Summit in Bangkok when the Thais hope for the Charter to be ratified at the old Saranrom Palace where the original ASEAN instrument was signed 41 years ago. On the same table, they told me, which they have recently refurbished. So that was the major item on our agenda.
Then following on the Charter, we've got to establish the Human Rights Body and formalise the details of a dispute settlement mechanism. All of which are in hand at the coming AMM. We will establish the High Level Panel to establish a Human Rights Body and also a High Level Legal Expert Group for the dispute settlement mechanism. Then, we will work on the blueprints for establishing a security community and for socio-cultural community. The blueprints should be ready by the end of the year for the Summit.
That was the work-in-progress we inherited from the Filipino Chair. But in September last year, when we were in the UN for the UN General Assembly, we had demonstrations in Yangon and a brutal crackdown against peaceful demonstrators. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers met in an emergency session in New York and issued a strong statement, which I think took many people, including ourselves by surprise. But it was the right thing to do. And after that, we had Gambari visiting Myanmar, extending the good offices of the UN. That process was interrupted by Cyclone Nargis. But I have received word recently that Myanmar has invited Gambari back to Myanmar to continue his good work later this year, after 15th August. So that is a spot of good news.
In the meantime, in Myanmar, the Referendum for a new Constitution has taken place. We are told, over 90% support of it. The process was not internationally verified, so one would expect that different people would have different views about the Referendum. But from Singapore's perspective, whatever the legitimacy of the Referendum, it is a step forward because it lays the ground work for the elections in 2010. And once there are elections, there will be a new political dynamic in Myanmar, which would be a good thing. We are disappointed that Aung San Suu Kyi's detention order was continued, even though the Referendum had been carried out and the Constitution had been pronounced as accepted.
As for Cyclone Nargis itself, it was a terrible disaster of biblical portions. Tens of thousands died and in the initial aftermath, there was a stand-off between the Myanmar government and the international community who wanted to extend emergency assistance. On the one hand, there was great enthusiasm to help. But some might have hoped that this would help topple the government. Then on the other side, we had the Myanmar government which was paranoid and worried that the warships anchored outside were there not just to deliver aid but to give assistance to rebel forces. So we received troubling reports (which) said that instead of soldiers going out to help the victims, they went into defensive positions.
Within a few days of the cyclone, I passed word to my counterpart that Singapore was prepared to extend assistance, and even provide helicopters. And Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) suggested an emergency meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers to see how ASEAN could play a role. They didn't accept our offer of assistance but they agreed to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, which we held on 19th May. But right up to that point, there was a paralysis because on the one hand, they were suspicious and on the other hand, international agencies didn't quite know how to handle the Myanmar government. So on the 19th May meeting, we decided that ASEAN should help build a bridge of trust between the Myanmar government and the world. It was not an easy decision for the Myanmar Foreign Minister to take. He had to go back to his capital to get the approval. And once we knew that this was possible, we established a Humanitarian Task Force under ASEAN Secretary-General, Surin Pitsuwan. And he in turn, established a tripartite core group in place, in Yangon. And the core group did good work. So over the days and weeks, the visas were issued, the aid percolated through.
And recently, a very detailed damage assessment report was done jointly by the UN, by ASEAN and by the Myanmar government. They divided the entire Irrawady Delta into grid boxes, sampled villages in every square and after a few weeks, came up with a very detailed report. And the report, on the whole, was more positive than we expected. No starvation, no outbreak of epidemics. Yes, still a lot to be done. A lot of people are suffering, food supplies are meagre, livelihoods have got to be restored. They need all kinds of things, shelters, zinc sheets, ropes. They need boats, nets, clean water, food supply, milk, and some of which are now provided by international agencies. We are still in the relief and recovery phase and we have to go on for months. We don't want to talk about reconstruction because the moment we talk about reconstruction, some international agencies and certainly, many of the western countries are averse to it because they see that as shoring up a government which they don't like.
We, in ASEAN were faced with a moral dilemma. Do we help Myanmar, and perpetuate a situation which some of us may consider to be not very good. Or do we separate politics from the humanitarian efforts and concentrate on helping the people first, which is what we did. And looking back, I think it was the right thing to do. The report of the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment Study would be released next week, in formal session by me, by the ASEAN Secretary-General, by the Myanmar Foreign Minister, by the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance. So these are the things which are on-going. It turned out to be quite an eventful and exciting year. I will be handing over to the Thai chair, at the end of next week. Still, work-in-progess, which we took over from the Philippines and which we will be handing over to the Thais.
But on the whole, I would say, it was not a bad year.
Q: This year we are handing over to Thailand, but Thailand's Foreign Minister has resigned. Do you see any problem in the handing over process and the follow through?
Minister: No, I am not worried about that. Even Minister Noppadon, who became a good friend, was only appointed recently. But he was a fast learner and was quickly getting up to speed and I was looking forward to handing over to him. But now, over the Preah Vihear case, he had to resign and the new foreign minister has not yet been appointed. But there is a strong institution in the Thai Foreign Ministry. I mean it is an institution which helped Thailand maintain its neutrality and independence all these years, and keeping Thailand as the only country in South East Asia which was not colonised by a western power. So I have great faith in the institutional strength of the Thai Foreign Ministry and even though a new Thai Foreign Minister has not yet been appointed, I have no doubt that there will be someone there to take over from us and that steady hands will take over the chairmanship.
Q: A lot has been done to help Myanmar. What do you hope, or how do you hope Myanmar will respond, at the end of the day, to all this help that ASEAN has helped to bring about. And ASEAN has been in the forefront in helping Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis; what do you really hope that the Myanmar Foreign Minister will come and tell you at the ASEAN Foreign Minister Meeting or do as a follow up?
Minister: I don't expect surprises. I believe that the relief and recovery work will continue. They will of course appreciate more help if the world can provide them more help. On the political side, they will proceed at their own pace. They have said that they will welcome Gambari back after 15th August. I know they are under pressure from some of their friends. The Chinese certainly don't want the Myanmar to become an issue before the Olympics. So let's take it one step at a time.
In the meantime, elections will be held in 2010 and preparations will have to be made. There is a timetable which we can hold Myanmar to. So I will say, progress is not as much as I would like on the political side but there are some movements. On the humanitarian side, we feared the worst initially but it turned out not to be an F-grading. Certainly not an A or B, but I would say on the whole, with ASEAN's assistance, and ASEAN taking the lead in bringing humanitarian assistance into Myanmar, we could give ourselves a C grading.
Q: What lessons do you think Singapore learnt from dealing with Myanmar?
Minister: From the viewpoint of ASEAN, even though we have provisions for a disaster recovery mechanism, it is still embryonic, it needs a lot of work. We had to learn very fast in the last few months because of Cyclone Nargis and I hope that out of it, we will see concrete actions taken to build up such a disaster assistance mechanism in ASEAN so that when the next disaster strikes, we would be much more ready. This is something which the ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan is very seized with and as Foreign Ministers, we must give him full support. And we can't just work by ourselves. We should make use of the international facilities which are available and which are always extended to us when we need their help.
Q: The ASEAN-US leaders meeting didn't take place. What do you say about that?
Minister: I don't think it will take place now because of Myanmar and also because of other priorities in Washington DC. But President Bush would be visiting Thailand later this year and Thailand will be the Chair. I believe, on the sidelines of APEC, there will still be an ASEAN 7 meeting with the US, so that will continue. Relations with the US, on the whole, are very good. Of course, everyone is looking beyond the current administration to the next administration. But there is continuity, and everytime we need help, the US is there for us.
They were there when Indonesia had a tsunami. And even after Cyclone Nargis, the US has been very helpful. CINCPAC (US Pacific Command) Commander Admiral Keating went to Yangon. They gave millions of dollars worth of aid. They could have done more if the Myanmar government had allowed them to do more. But given the circumstances, I think the US played a positive role. And they will long be a force for stability and equilibrium in our part of the world.
Q: What is your message to the two High Level Task Groups that will be established during this AMM?
Minister: First, the Human Rights Body. Lots of expectations, no consensus yet as to what this body will do. But the fact that we are resolved to create such a body, is itself a major advance. As Indonesian Foreign Minister Pak Hassan once reminded us: we should not be allergic to human rights because what are we here for but to benefit the welfare of our peoples, which must include basic human rights?. Of course, we understand that some countries, in particular the Indo-Chinese countries, are afraid that human rights might be a way by which western powers interfere in their domestic politics. And really that is their deep fear and that is why they are against a human rights body with teeth. They have seen how in other countries, human rights can be selectively used as an instrument against governments or regimes which are not in the favour of some western countries. But we are not doing this for others; we are doing this for ourselves.
What we want is, gradually over the years, to build up an agreed foundation of common human rights in ASEAN, which will serve our regional construction and which will serve the interests of our peoples. This is what we must try to do. Whether or not the human rights body we establish will have teeth, I don't know. But it would certainly have a tongue, and I hope it would have a sharp tongue.
As for the other high-level panel, it is a legal experts group to draw up a comprehensive dispute settlement mechanism for the ASEAN community. We already have such a mechanism for settling trade disputes which we called the "Enhanced Dispute Settlement Mechanism," that is already in place. But we need to fill in the lacuna because there are other agreements which are not covered by existing instruments. It has to be a legal document so that when there are disputes, they can be put before independent panels, which would look at the legality of the agreements and pass judgement. This is good because, after the first one, two cases, the different countries will be very careful when they negotiate an agreement to check the legal language and over time, an ASEAN legal jurisprudence will evolve and we need that as the foundation of our community. So the work which the legal expert panels will do will be a very important one. So these will be the main points I will make to them.
Q: If some countries have not ratified the Charter by December, what does it mean for ASEAN? How do you move forward? You said that the ratification will mean implementation.
Minister: We need all 10 countries to ratify before the Charter can come into force. So if we don't achieve that by the end of the year, it would be a setback. But I am not pessimistic. I believe that the reason why we have come this far is not because we are doing each other favours but because ASEAN is important to each and everyone of us. Every country in ASEAN knows that each does better; each is more competitive; each is more secure - by there being a stronger ASEAN, than there not being one.
Despite domestic problems in many countries, the will to push on the ASEAN construction remains strong and unwavering. I know some analysts looking at Southeast Asia, looking at the domestic political situation in a number countries pass snide remarks like "Oh, where's ASEAN going?" But, in fact if you look at the ASEAN agenda, we are persisting and we are making progress, year by year. I am confident the Charter will be ratified. In fact, all the countries are already taking concrete steps, in anticipation of the Charter being ratified, including appointing Ambassadors to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, which will handle many of the day-to-day problems. These are provisions envisaged in the Charter. So we are already taking steps on the assumption that the Charter will be ratified at the end of the year.
Q: What happens if by December, not all 10 have ratified the Charter? Will you still go ahead with the permanent representatives at Jakarta?
Minister: I don't think we can invoke the specific provisions of the Charter if it has not been ratified. I suppose the leaders can agree to bring specific aspects into force, pending ratification by all. But I don't see us having to take that move.
Q: You talk about human rights and economic cooperation. What about the climate change? The political will is needed for climate change, how do you evaluate the success of ASEAN in meeting the political wills of every different ASEAN countries?
Minister: The new post Kyoto deal is being negotiated. It is a very difficult exercise but one desperately necessary for the world. The ASEAN countries don't all have the same interests. We share some common interests but we have divergent interests in specific segments.
It's a little like the WTO. While we may all be in favour of free trade, all of us have our own interests to defend and some of these interests are offensive, some of these interests are defensive. But on the whole, we share a common interest in protecting the environment that we share in ASEAN; the waters, the air, the forests because when the forests burn, all of us are affected and when the forests are healthy, all of us benefit. We share a common interest in protecting the biological diversity of the forests, of the mangrove swamps, of land and aquatic life.
Singapore has certain specific concerns because we are a city state, we are a logistics hub, which means that on a per capita basis, because of the economic activities that we carry out here, we emit more carbon than other countries which have different economic structures. We must ensure that whatever agreement we arrive at, it is an agreement which is fair to all countries. It is a complex process of negotiation. There was a meeting recently and although progress was not dramatic, the conceptual delineation of the problem has at least become clearer. And we are beginning to develop the vocabulary, the categories which we need for negotiations.
Q: Do you think that will be higher up the agenda for the next round when Thailand takes over?
Minister: I think it will be in our agenda for many years to come and there will be a lot of argy-bargy, exchange of ideas, there will be work done within ASEAN, there will be work done by ASEAN plus Three, EAS, APEC. In fact, like the WTO, I envisage many groupings of like-minded countries, of countries with similar interests, groupings which are in contention, groupings which would overlap. And we've got to be very clear on what our interests are, taking into account the overall objectives, and then play a constructive role as we have in the WTO.
Q: So you're looking forward to receiving bigger challenges facing ASEAN with Thailand taking over?
Minister: Thailand would be in the chair for a year and a half, because we are re-synchronising the ASEAN calendar to begin at the beginning of the year. I see Thailand being a strong chair. So far, the domestic political situation is concerned, they are going through a difficult period, but I have great faith in the institutional strength of the Thai Foreign Ministry. The ASEAN chairman is not a soloist. This is like a jazz band, with musicians taking the lead in turn. You can't play on your own, and when you move from one musician to the other, it is often quite seamless. I mean it's difficult to mark the point at which we took over from the Filipinos, even though there was a formal occasion where we took over from the Filipinos. And just as Bert Romulo was very helpful to me when I took over, I promised to be very helpful to Thailand when I met Minister Noppadon just recently in Bangkok. That spirit of gotong royong in ASEAN, which has served us well, should continue to serve us well.
Q: Can you state what do expect at next week's meeting. You mentioned that human rights...
Minister: These are the two bodies which we are establishing. We will review the situation in Myanmar, both the humanitarian assistance following Cyclone Nargis and the political situation in Myanmar. We will talk about the ratification of the Charter, and the things that we must do in order to bring the Charter into force. We have got to strengthen the secretariat because right now, it is under-resourced for the new functions which we expect it to undertake, when the Charter comes into force. Then we will have to discuss the regional situation in Northeast Asia. The situation that has improved, particularly after President Hu Jintao's visit to Japan and there is a new mood there now.
I know recently there has been some difficulties over a disputed island in the sea between Korea and Japan. I hesitate to call it the Japan Sea or the Korea Sea because that itself is a point of dispute. But I believe that will pass and if you look at North Korea, there has been some progress, and we can talk about North Korea later, they are acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. The improved situation in Northeast Asia would give a boost to the ASEAN plus Three process. In addition to the ASEAN plus Three process, we have the EAS which includes in addition to ASEAN plus Three, India, Australia and New Zealand. And for the first time, we will be having an informal meeting of EAS foreign ministers next week. It is still early, the EAS construction, but it is an important construction for the longer term because it brings India and China together, with Southeast Asia, and not over our heads.
If we succeed in creating conditions for continuing peace and development in Asia, within one generation, the transformation will be beyond belief and the whole world will change with it. What we are doing now is really laying the foundations, building the main pillars and cross beams for an Asian house which can accommodate our separate aspirations and provide facilities for the resolution of disputes and conflicts which will arise from time to time, bearing in mind that we cannot be exclusive, that we must always keep our doors open to the Americans, to the Europeans, to everybody, that this is an open house. This is what we are trying to do and ASEAN is a key player in this larger regional construction. Not something for which we expect dramatic announcements to be made next week but a continuing dialogue and interaction among the foreign ministers. First, among ourselves, then with our friends and I believe, little by little, we are getting there.
About North Korea, they were very careful to know what their obligations were, but we are very pleased that they communicated to us recently that when the North Korean foreign minister comes for the ARF next week, he will also accede to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. That completes the field in Asia. And it deserves a little ceremony. The symbolism is important because it shows the willingness of North Korea to engage more widely in international affairs. We are not a major player, we in Southeast Asia are not a major player in Northeast Asia. For that, there is the six-party talks, but we are non-threatening to them. And as they begin to open up their economy, which I believe they are doing, they will find from among the Southeast Asia countries, models to study.
In particular I believe that the Vietnamese model of reform and opening up will be very interesting to them because both are Communists, both have centralised structures, one has already opened up and shown that by opening up, it can bring great benefits to its people without losing national integrity, independence and autonomy, and North Korea wants that. And they will find advantage learning from the Vietnamese model. From Singapore, they made requests from time to time, which we were happy to accede to. And this year, the North Korean foreign minister will also be making a bilateral visit and I look forward to hosting him. Interestingly, at about the same time, there will be bilateral visits from both the North Korean Foreign Minister and the South Korean Foreign Minister. We are happy to be in this position and to be friends with both.
Q: Would North Korea become dialogue partners with ASEAN?
Minister: Well, I still think that is still too early to say. I would say if they open up their economy, and if there is development and if they desire a close engagement with ASEAN, then we should welcome it. But let's take this one step at a time. Their inclusion will complete the Asian family.
Q: Is East Timor still clamouring to be a member of ASEAN?
Minister: I think they have expressed an interest. We have not come to an agreement yet, I think it's still much too early. We are not saying yes, but we are not saying no either. Basically, we have got enough problems of our own and we should not be taking on new obligations lightly. In the meantime, they do well to maximise their existing relationships with Portugal, with Australia, with other countries who bid them well. We have good relations with them. Papua New Guinea has also expressed an interest in ASEAN.
Q: They are an observer?
Minister: They are an observer, they will be here as an observer next week, and East Timor will be here as a special guest of the chair.
Q: You said that ASEAN is a key player in the Asian architecture, if you like...
Minister: ASEAN is a key player.
Q: In light of this, how do you view Kevin Rudd's recent proposal of an Asia Pacific Community? Will this be discussed at this AMM?
Minister: He made certain comments, which intrigued us. We need to understand a bit more. He has appointed a special envoy for this purpose, (Richard) Woolcott, I think he will be making his rounds in the coming months and we look forward to hearing from him what are these ideas for the long term. Prime Minister Rudd was very careful to say that these are long- term ideas and we should not weaken existing institutional arrangements. For us in ASEAN, we are of course concerned that whatever new arrangements there may be, they should not weaken ASEAN's central position in Asia. We have our own interests to defend and if we are satisfied that newer, longer term arrangements benefit ASEAN and strengthen our central position, then we will look at those ideas favourably. But it is still much too early. But I'm quite sure that ASEAN foreign ministers will discuss Prime Minister Rudd's idea. Yes, please?
Q: We see some political struggle in some ASEAN countries recently, so how do you think it will affect the ASEAN's stability as a whole?
Minister: You mean the domestic political problems in individual ASEAN countries?
Q: Yes, like Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines....
Minister: Bilaterally, while we may be affected by the domestic political developments in neighbouring countries, we should never get entangled in them, we should never take sides. That is a key principle. And it is because we have this wisdom in ASEAN, that ASEAN is able to make progress year by year, despite occasional difficulties in individual countries. Even Myanmar remains part of the family and that's because we maintain a certain discipline in the way we regard each other's sovereignty. Sovereignty is not absolute but there is a certain regard that each is autonomous and the developments in each country is principally for the people of that country, to decide for themselves.
I don't see the developments in Malaysia, Thailand or the Philippines affecting ASEAN's construction. The ministers still come. Occasionally they have got to go back earlier because they are needed back home. A few can't come, like Pranab Mukherjee and Hor Nam Hong, because they have got elections or important parliamentary votes back home, so we understand that. But the institutional continuity is there and all the ASEAN countries have a strong institutional position in a stronger ASEAN, and that's what will keep us going.
Q: This question about sovereignty and non-interference has been spoken about as a problem in ASEAN, for example, the Myanmar issue. How much does ASEAN intervene in its democratisation process? When ASEAN integrates further will we see a shift? Because in the Charter says certain things and if certain countries are not adhering to the Charter, what happens then in this ASEAN way?
Q: Then they will hear from us and if they are well constructed dispute settlement mechanisms, we can haul them up before such a mechanism and judgement will be passed and restitution will be expected. We are adult members of the family. Being a member of a family means owing each other certain obligations and adhering to a certain code of conduct. From time to time you could have members of the family who behave strangely or want a bit more space for themselves, and we've got to expect that from time to time and handle this in a mature and understanding manner.
Myanmar is going through such a phase now and it really pains us, but they remain a member of the family and they have shown by their actions that they want to remain a member of the family. Even though they know that whenever they come, they get a earful from the other family members, they still turn up and they do not want to be excluded. That itself is a good sign.
Q: This is more of a personal question about how the experience has been for you, in this one year personally and also for Singapore, what lessons...I mean Singaporeans are used to making quick decisions but the ASEAN process requires consensus. It takes a longer time to arrive at a decision. For you personally...
Minister: For me, I have forged a deep bond of friendship and camaraderie with my colleagues in ASEAN. Yes sometimes we are slow to take decisions but sometimes we can be very fast and I remember how at the UN, within 24 hours just through phone calls and meetings on the corridor, we were able to get everybody to meet to discuss Myanmar, to issue a press statement, all ten of us with our flags behind us, before the international media. There are certain instincts at work that if it is really important, we will make time for each other. But if it is not, or if there is no great urgency, then we need not be as rushed. On the human rights body, though some of us would want it to be established sooner than later, rushing it may slow us down. But when there is an emergency like Cyclone Nargis, it's never a problem, never a problem. Or after the tsunami, the ASEAN leaders met quickly at short notice, and I have no doubt that when there is a need or when there is a crisis or emergency, and we need to get everybody together and make decisions, they will come quickly and make those decisions and the right ones.
Q: It's been a year of ups and downs. Looking back, what would you say is your single biggest regret?
Minister: I thought last year at the Summit, there was a lost opportunity when Myanmar did not agree to the ASEAN leaders meeting Special Envoy Gambari. After the events in September, we were very anxious that a process of national reconciliation in Myanmar should begin with the encouragement of the entire ASEAN family.
Till today, I don't understand why Myanmar thought that they were better off dealing directly with the UN, than with the UN through ASEAN. We offered our hands of friendship. The offer was declined. In the end, Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) had to issue a sombre statement with eight other leaders standing by his side...that was a pity.
Q: And the high point?
Minister: I would say on May 19, when we confronted the Myanmar Foreign Minister and asked him point blank, what Myanmar meant to ASEAN and what ASEAN meant to Myanmar and we finally agreed to establish this mechanism to help Myanmar, giving them a buffer. I wasn't sure then whether morally speaking we were doing the right thing. To many of us, it should not seem as if they were doing us a favour by accepting our help and many of us had our own political view of Myanmar, so it was a moral dilemma. If we had been cynical and said, "Look, let the contradiction sharpen," that would be playing with people's lives on the political chessboard.
Everyday, my Ambassador in Yangon would send me back a report and I still receive daily reports from Yangon. In the first few weeks, twice a day; now, once a day and when the assessment report came out and said the situation had improved, no starvation, no outbreak of diseases, aid reaching the furthest corners and ASEAN having acquitted itself well, I looked back and said we had made the right decision, we had saved lives and that...I think that should give us some satisfaction.
Well, thank you very much!
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TRANSCRIPT OF MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS GEORGE YEO'S INTERVIEW WITH DOW JONES ON 16 JULY 2008
Q: What can we expect from this meeting this year? Any deliverables? Anything you can tell us?
Minister: There will be I think, two interesting events. One is the release of the Post Nargis Joint Assessment Report. That is done by the UN, ASEAN and the Myanmar Government - an extensive survey of the area affected by the Cyclone. Basically, the Irrawaddy Delta divided up into grids and each square quite carefully sampled. The general conclusion is the situation is not as bad as we have feared. No mass starvation or outbreak of epidemics. But of course, it is very difficult for those affected. They need shelter, they need food, they need equipment to till the land for the next crop, they need medicine, and they need water. All kinds of things - roofings, boats, nets and so on. Anyway, there will be a formal presentation next week. I can't remember the actual day itself. On the 21st? It will be by me, by the Myanmar Foreign Minister, by the ASEAN Secretary General, by the Head of the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.
Q: That will be John Holmes, right?
Minister: Sir John Holmes. That's right. So that is one major event, and as part of it, all ASEAN Foreign Ministers will have to discuss what is the next step, but we can talk about Myanmar afterwards. Then the second interesting event will be the accession by North Korea to ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. This was an invitation extended to them by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers which I conveyed when I was there...two months ago? Three months ago? Two months ago? That completes the accession by all of ASEAN, all our Asian neighbours. Of course, we are not a major player in the Korean Peninsula but it does represent a certain outreach by us and a certain response by them which I think is modestly helpful.
Q: Did you expect a response from them?
Minister: Yes, I first broached it to them last year, when the Foreign Minister...when I met the Foreign Minister in Manila and then I conveyed it officially to them after I got the approval from the Foreign Ministers during the Foreign Ministers retreat in February. They were quite careful, they wanted to know what were the obligations on them and that this is not, this is just between them and us, not something which should involve them with the major protagonists of the Korean Peninsula, so we assured that that indeed was the case. They just confirmed a few days ago, that they were going to accede. He will be here. The North Korean Foreign Minister will be also here for a bilateral visit and the new South Korean Foreign Minister will also be here on a bilateral visit, so we feel very honoured to be hosting both at about the same time. So I mean these are the major events on top of ASEAN, Myanmar or dialogue partners.
Q: Back to the Nargis Assessment, is it also in your assessment that it's time to move on from the recovery phase to the reconstruction?
Minister: Reconstruction is a word which many countries prefer not to use. Because some countries, particularly western countries do not feel they should be supporting the SPDC government, and reconstruction suggests the belief that the relief and recovery phase is past. So the word we have agreed to use is recovery, following relief, immediate relief, and that should continue for many more months.
Q: But it is gone past that phase already? Are you saying that in order to get the support of these western governments, you have to speak of a certain phrasing of how...
Minister: Well, it's a phrasing which expresses conceptually...let me reel back. When Nargis hit, I think all of us were concerned whether the relief effort should be politicised. In fact I would say, there were groups who had hoped that this would be the final push to bring down the regime. If that had been done, we'd be playing with people's lives, because obviously they needed urgent help and when warships were anchored outside, warships bearing supplies anchored outside Myanmar waters, the government was...they felt quite paranoid about it. We received reports that troops, instead of being sent down to help the victims, they were sent into defensive positions.
So for a while, there was a standoff between the Myanmar government and the international community. My Prime Minister, because we are the ASEAN chair, Prime Minister asked me to offer to the Myanmar government the, hosting of a meeting of Foreign Ministers to see how we could help. That came three weeks later. And when the meeting started, I was not optimistic because they seemed so beleaguered, the Myanmar government. That was on May 19. It was quite a dramatic encounter because the other ASEAN Foreign Ministers confronted our Myanmar counterpart asking him: "Look, what does Myanmar mean to us, and what do we mean to you?" The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirajuda, was particularly emphatic on this point. In the end, we agreed that ASEAN should help to build a bridge of trust between the Myanmar government and the international community so that it'd be an ASEAN-led international assistance effort. But we knew that there'd be lots of problems on the ground, so the Secretary-General of ASEAN would lead the high-level task force, and in Yangon there would be a tripartite core group. But the Myanmar Foreign Minister had to clear it with Naypyidaw. After our lunch, (we) adjourned discussion, he called back and told us that he got the green light. That was the major decision taken, It was a major move. It was very clear in our minds that we had to separate the humanitarian efforts from our political concerns about political developments in Myanmar. The moment we reached agreement in Singapore, we conveyed it to the Secretary-General, who was waiting for us, because without such an agreement, he couldn't have gone to Yangon, he couldn't have gone to Myanmar to meet...
Q: Sorry sir, you mean the UN Secretary-General?
Minister: Yes, the UN Secretary-General. He couldn't have gone to Naypyidaw to meet Than Shwe, Senior-General Than Shwe. So the moment that it was conveyed to him, he confirmed his flight. And a few days later he flew there and had a fairly long meeting with the Senior-General. And that set the stage for the pledging conference the following Sunday, which was a good...Were you there? (Dow Jones: No, Sir) It went well. After that, of course, there were complaints that visas were not being issued. Not all the complaints were... Some of the complaints were valid, not all were valid. The tripartite core group met every day and had to sort of wade through the problems and help sort them out.
By and large, the Myanmar Prime Minister played a helpful role and as the PONJA (Post Nargis Joint Assessment) report revealed, visas were in fact issued and international assistance agencies were able to get in and the aid has percolated through to all parts. So when you say a difference between recovery and reconstruction, this is the background. It's a rather long explanation. Immediately it turns upon the two constants we have which may be conflicting. One humanitarian, and the other political. So I would say, by separating the two, we were able to make progress on the humanitarian side. And the immediate crisis is past even though there is a lot of work still to be done, and for that work to be done, we should continue to separate the humanitarian from the political.
Moving to the political side now, recently, the Myanmar government invited Gambari back to Myanmar. He was supposed to go in May, but because of the Cyclone, he couldn't go. It'd be after August 15 and that is something we welcome. There is a roadmap with a timetable. They've had the referendum, and the voting was held. The referendum process was not verified by neutral observers. So one might question the legitimacy of the exercise. They reported over 90 percent support, which only aroused greater scepticism. But it's still a step forward because proceeding from it will be the elections in 2010 and that itself will create a new set of dynamics in Myanmar, which should be helpful.
All this reminded me of the process which Soeharto instituted in Indonesia, where all the trappings of democracy were unveiled but without the substance, it was all guided. But in the end, the procedures that were put in place were used for the real thing, after Soeharto fell. So once you have rules for elections and commissions and polling stations and MPs and so on, eventually that becomes a vessel within which real politics will eventually take place. We see that as a step forward even though we had doubts about some of the things that took place and we also regret the fact Aung San Suu Kyi's detention was extended even though by their own declaration, the referendum had approved a new constitution.
Q: Minister, you just said we, we meaning Singapore or we meaning ASEAN?
Minister: I think here, I can speak for all of us.
Q: But then you have a Charter that's being held up by some countries, well, Philippines anyway, who are holding it up because of Myanmar's human rights, so...
Minister: We can talk about the Charter. The Charter will have to be ratified by all 10 countries before it can come into force. So far six countries have ratified, Myanmar has recently ratified it and will be announcing it next week officially. That leaves Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. We don't see Indonesia and Thailand as a problem. Philippines - there were remarks made earlier by Filipino politicians that they can't ratify the charter unless it's for changing Myanmar. But our argument, the rest of us, to the Filipinos is, we can only hold Myanmar to the standards expressed in the Charter after the Charter is in force.
Q: So but then again, you have to have the Charter...
Minister: But I am not pessimistic. When we meet the Filipino senators, they tell us that it is do-able so I'm not pessimistic about the Philippines, I fully expect that the Charter would be fully ratified by the time of the next Summit at the end of the year in Bangkok.
Q: Is this a, I mean, is this also another issue with ASEAN that you have a communist Laos, a socialist Vietnam and then you have a military government in Myanmar and you have democracy in Singapore and Indonesia. How do you reconcile all of these differences? I mean, in your, as ASEAN chair, you've obviously seen those differences at work.
Minister: It's because we take into account the diversity that is Southeast Asia from the outset, that we were able to create ASEAN. If we had insisted on conformity, then ASEAN would never have taken off, because the diversity of Southeast Asia is not shallow, it is deep in its history.
We are not Europe, we don't have a common heritage in Greece, Rome and Judeo-Christianity. In our case, it is the fact that we are in between the two great civilisations of China and India, that unites us. A growing feeling that unless we clump together in the face of their rapid growth, we are at a severe disadvantage and could be divided as a result. So Vietnam, who was an adversary during the Cold War, immediately applied to join after the Cold War, because without ASEAN membership, it's very difficult for Vietnam to have a normal relationship with China, given its complex history of relations with China and the fact that China is so much bigger than Vietnam. But with a united Southeast Asia, we can deal with the major powers on some basis of equality. But not from the perspective of military strength, but on the basis of neutrality and openness.
Q: Is that just in theory though, Sir? I mean in application over the past year, what do you see? Can that be achieved, I mean, there are certain things, like the Charter, it's been hard to get that going...
Minister: Well, the Charter has made faster progress than we could have reasonably expected. Three years ago, I think few of us would believe that by the end of this year, we could have a Charter. And I myself, before in the Trade Industry and now in Foreign Affairs, I'm constantly cheered by the political will that is seen whenever we come to critical decision points. Yes, individual countries may have domestic difficulties, yes, bilaterally, there could be problems here and there, but when it comes to the ASEAN construction, somehow, when Ministers meet and leaders meet, they come to agreement and that's quite remarkable. What explains this? Is this goodwill? Is it mutual love or affection? I'm not sure, I think it is because of a common challenge and that common challenge is the rise of China and India, which impinges on all 10 of us.
That clarifies thinking and that is the explanation for that common political will.
Q: I know we are short on time, but can you sum up how you feel about the ASEAN chairmanship in one word? Can you, one word that would describe...
Minister: It's been an eventful year, when we took over from the Filipinos, we expected the Charter and its implementation, to be the key item on the agenda. It was, but we also had, in addition, the brutal crackdown of peaceful demonstrators last September in Myanmar, which forced us to meet in an emergency session in New York during the UN General Assembly and issue a strong statement. Then we have the Gambari process - we had hoped that the process could be backed by ASEAN as a community. Unfortunately, during the Summit last year, Myanmar told us that it did not want ASEAN involved in the Gambari process and that it preferred to deal directly with the UN security council. So my Prime Minister had sadly to convene a press conference late that evening, with eight other leaders standing beside him, reading out a statement that said, well, we offered, we tried, it's regrettable, but it's Myanmar's decision.
Then we had Cyclone Nargis, and we had to suspend all our political reservations and say look, let's concentrate on the humanitarian efforts. But some good has come out of it because we've created more trust now between Myanmar and ASEAN, between Myanmar and the world. It has also created in ASEAN, a determination to build up our disaster response capability, which will stand us well the next time we face a disaster as we must, from time to time. Then we also had the sharp rise in fuel and food prices, the fuel prices there's little we can do about, food prices, we can, we can't move away from international prices, but we can help assure supply within ASEAN because ASEAN is a net exporter of food, of rice. We should help each other if any country is in need. But I think the ministers have been talking about it, no country is prepared to commit more than what is in its own self-interest, but on the basis of international prices it'd be good if we say, look, we supply the region first before we supply outside the region.
Q: Is that something you've been talking about?
Minister: I think there's such a sentiment, but there's a reluctance to commit formally and the great difficulty is to reduce this sentiment into words. There's actually no reason why as Southeast Asia, we should be exporting our rice to the world, when there are parts of the region that are short of rice. But we are talking international prices, not subsidised prices.
Q: So it's something that you broach with your...
Minister: Oh it's something that the economic ministers have talked about, which I believe, more discussion on will help create a better response to.
Q: You have...
Minister: So it turned out to be quite an eventful year, it was a heavy responsibility, which was our turn to bear and I think we bore it as best as we could.
Q: Are you happy to give it up?
Minister: I'm...I must say I'd be relieved to pass the chair on to...Myanmar (note: should be Thailand) but ASEAN is a work in process and it's not as if you are on your own. It's like a 10-man jazz band, and each musician takes the lead in turn, but with all the others supporting, and shoring him up when from time to time he needs to catch his breath, or pause a little.
Q: You're also heavily involved in the Doha round...
Minister: Yes, that was many years ago.
Q: ...I mean it's still being held up. But I guess individually, within ASEAN, some countries are against the agricultural concession, Sir, if I may put forward. Can you see a breakthrough?
Minister: I don't think we are far from a deal in terms of actual positions, it'd be a great pity if we don't close because we'd be walking away from a deal which can add hundreds of billions of dollars to global welfare. That's a lot to walk away from because just because we think that certain parts of the deal are not as favourable as we would like them to be. I think between the US and Europe, there's a broad agreement on what would be a reasonable agricultural deal for the two of them. They have their demands on NAMA and some developing countries feel that they are asking for too much. Then for NAMA and for agricultural products, there are always sensitive areas, which always got to be negotiated over.
I'm not sure if they have sufficient political will to close it in the coming days and weeks, there's not much time. It's an opportunity for President Bush to leave behind a very important legacy because if you don't close now, given the way the global economy is going, we won't be able to close for many years. And in that meantime, the world may take a different turning, which should be very sad.
So I would urge all countries to take a strategic view. It's not easy, the US - people are looking beyond this administration already and India is going through a difficult period domestically speaking. The Indian Foreign Minister might not be able to come for the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting next week because of the confidence vote in parliament. Every country has its own domestic political constraint. Trouble is as far as Doha is concerned, the benefits are spread across a wide sector, so with trade negotiations, there's always the problem, the beneficiaries are not as well organised as those who would lose from the deal. Pascal Lamy will have a big job. He has to take some risk because if you don't, you will fail. If you do, there's at least a chance of success.
Q: Any closing thoughts, Minister? Anything, any other burning issues?
Minister: Condi Rice will be here...
Q: And actually all these are part of (inaudible), all the nations...
Minister: I would say the better political situation in Northeast Asia is a plus, for all the meetings that are coming up next week - restoration of good relations between Japan and China, that's a major development, progress on the nuclear issue with North Korea and that's a major development too, good for ASEAN + 3, good for the EAS, good for APEC and it will make the ARF next week more constructive.
Q: Sorry I just have one more thing, the AEC is still 2015, there's no rollback on any dates for that one right?
Minister: ASEAN community is 2015, the AEC is in phases, we are virtually already a free trade area for goods now, but there's still a lot to be done for services, that's to be expected. It's not a dramatic change of state from one to the other, it is a process of liberalisation that has been going on for many years, continuing in the right direction.
Q: Thank you sir.
Minister: Thank you very much.
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