Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Doorstop Interview After the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat in Luang Prabang, Laos, 29 January 2024

29 January 2024

Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: We just had a very good meeting of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers. Open, candid, free flowing. I thought it was very constructive. A few key points to highlight. Number one, the theme that Laos has chosen – Resilience and Connectivity – is very apt, very appropriate, very timely. More specifically under this general framework, there were a few things we all agreed on.

One is that if you look at, especially in Indochina and in this part of ASEAN, connectivity, logistics, trains, planes, shipping, navigation, logistics, remains a key concern. It is essential if they are to unlock their full potential.

In more modern times, what we also need is connectivity particularly in the digital field. We all expressed support for the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement. We are going to spend the rest of the year negotiating it, and hopefully settle it by early next year when Malaysia assumes chairmanship of ASEAN.

Related to that, I also highlighted digital payments. For instance, Singapore already has digital payment links to Thailand, to Malaysia, and also a QR cross-border payment system with Indonesia. I mentioned that we should seek to multilateralise” these arrangements and have an ASEAN digital payments framework as well.

The other related area where we need more connectivity – there was a significant discussion on the need for an ASEAN Power Grid, which would enable both the producers and users of energy, particularly green, renewable energy, to feed into and draw from the common ASEAN Power Grid. This is something which we have been speaking about for decades. But I think now, when all of us need to make that transition into the green economy, the ASEAN Power Grid becomes more salient. So, it was useful for us to be able to emphasise that point.

Beyond the regional issues, we also had quite extensive discussions on international developments.

We discussed the ongoing war in Ukraine. I would say that all ASEAN countries and Timor-Leste, were very insistent that the UN Charter must be fully respected. The respect for territorial integrity, sovereign equality, and independence is sacrosanct. That is another useful reaffirmation of a common ASEAN position.

We also had delicate but sincere and candid discussions on what is happening in Gaza. Although there are some differences in perspectives within ASEAN countries, there are a few key points which we all agree on. Number one, we do need to call out terrorism, particularly when innocent civilians are affected – it does not matter from which side, where it occurs, or whatever pretext or excuse is used. If acts of terror are conducted, or if innocent civilians, are hurt, we need to express concern.

Another point which we all agreed on is, even as of today, there are still eight ASEAN nationals who are held hostage by Hamas. We are calling for their immediate release – unconditional and immediate release of hostages. We are also in total agreement on the need for international humanitarian law to be complied with by all parties. The Foreign Ministers have noted the recent announcement of provisional measures decided on by the ICJ (International Court of Justice).

The other important point is that all of us agree that the that only way forward is a negotiated two-state solution, which has to come from honest-to-goodness conversations across the table, good faith negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We actually agree on the key fundamentals, insofar as our views on and our perspective on the situation in Gaza.

I found it a very useful meeting. It reaffirms ASEAN cohesion, ASEAN unity, and consensus on key points. It also sets out an agenda for work next year and beyond; work which is relevant to the technological and economic changes which are sweeping our region. So, all in all, a very good meeting.

Tan Hui Yee (The Straits Times): Minister, how was the interaction with Myanmar’s representative in today’s retreat?

Minister: Yes, Myanmar sent a civil servant – a  non-political representative to the meeting. It was friendly, candid, and constructive. I think we all made the effort to emphasise that ASEAN does not want to interfere in the internal affairs of Myanmar. Nevertheless, all of us strongly believe there needs to be peace, there needs to be reconciliation, and a political solution has to arise from within the Myanmar society, Myanmar people and the leaders of Myanmar. To the extent possible that ASEAN can be helpful – keeping lines of engagement open with all sides and our Special Envoy is doing that, being helpful in delivering humanitarian assistance – we discussed plans to step up humanitarian assistance, particularly the efforts that Thailand is making to increase humanitarian assistance between the Thai-Myanmar border. I would say all in all, positive and friendly interactions, but still based on principles and trying to be helpful, rather than to interfere.

Tan Hui Yee (The Straits Times): What are the implications of her presence (Myanmar representative) in today's retreat? What is next for ASEAN?

Minister: I think if you recall, the decision that our leaders made was that at the Foreign Ministers’ meetings and at the Summit, Myanmar is welcome to send a non- political representative. I see her presence here today as simply a fulfilment of that point. I think it was helpful to have her in the room. In any case, even in the earlier meetings over the past three years, even when Myanmar was not in the room, we made a special effort to keep the chair empty, the flag present and more importantly, they had full access to all the discussions – either live or by transcripts. We have never excluded Myanmar from the discussions which are going on at the most senior levels within ASEAN. I think that is the correct attitude to take. We do not approve of what is happening. In fact, three years later the situation in Myanmar – the security situation, the safety of people, the economy – actually is worse than it was three years ago. Nevertheless, the key point remains. They need national reconciliation. They need to speak to each other. ASEAN stands ready as a neighbour, as a fraternal association, to be helpful and constructive, not to make things worse.

Claudia Liao (Lianhe Zaobao): With this new development, are you optimistic that the Myanmar military government will take concrete steps to implement the Five-Point Consensus?

Minister: I cannot use the word optimistic. The political situation in Myanmar is complex. It goes back decades. Clearly, its political environment, the expectations of its people and especially the younger generation are quite different. If you take reference from the past, it can sometimes take a very long time for positive change to occur. I do not want to raise hopes or expectations unrealistically. But the point is, we take a principled, careful, constructive approach to this. The Myanmar leaders and people know where to get help if they wish to get help from their neighbours.

Leong Wai Kit (CNA): This latest development of Myanmar sending a representative has naturally gained a lot of attention. But can I take us back to last year’s decision on the Troika? How big a part does this mechanism feature in Laos’ handling of the Myanmar crisis and what are your expectations on the deliverables?

Minister: If you go back three years, the leaders decided it would be useful for Myanmar to receive a Special Envoy from the ASEAN Chair. It has been three years, in fact, three different Envoys. Frankly, three different formulations of the way the Envoy, the Envoy’s Office and the way the Envoy’s Office engages with Myanmar. I see the Troika as part of this evolution that ASEAN is trying to find a way which is constructive, which is helpful, and in particular, enables ASEAN to engage all parties across the political spectrum.

Specifically for the Troika, the key thinking behind it was to add an element of continuity. Otherwise, every year you would end up with a completely new Envoy or new Envoy’s Office. You do not want to have to start from scratch all over again. Having a Troika, which means having the previous Chair’s Envoy being able to feed input, as well as the incoming Chair having access to everything that is being negotiated, discussed or enacted, this character also makes it easier.

The key point is continuity – having a Troika adds continuity to the process. This is an evolutionary thing. We will keep evolving the ASEAN mechanisms to fit the circumstances on the ground in Myanmar. We can only hope and wish for the best for the people of Myanmar. I have said this before, and I will repeat it. We know they are people who are hardworking, innovative and disciplined. They do well all over the world. Myanmar, as a state, and the Myanmar people deserve so much more.


.         .         .         .         .



Family photo at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Luang Prabang, Laos, 29 January 2024. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore.


ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Luang Prabang, Laos, 29 January 2024. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore.


Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s doorstop interview with Singapore media after the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Luang Prabang, Laos, 29 January 2024. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore.


Travel Page