Myanmar must do right by
By Verghese Mathews
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SINGAPORE - We know it is difficult to
counsel a close friend or sibling who one
perceives is moving in a direction detrimental to
him and his immediate circle. Rather than say
something, we are often tempted to take the easy
way out and do nothing, except hope that someone
else will tackle the problem.
now and then someone surfaces whose deep and
sincere concern for the friend is coupled with
moral courage and a willingness to take the
personal risk of being misunderstood by addressing
the problem at hand.
It is in such a
context that I see Singaporean Foreign Minister
George Yeo's meticulously crafted statement on
Myanmar. Yeo made the remarks during a
parliamentary debate last week, days before he
left for Jakarta, where he is heading a delegation
to the 15th ministerial meeting of the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the
European Union that opened on Thursday.
The sincerity with which Yeo spoke was
obvious. He made it clear that Singapore
recognized that the domestic situation in Myanmar
is complicated and that it is for the people of
Myanmar themselves to decide on their own future.
If the military leaders in Yangon were
listening, as undoubtedly they were, they would
not have failed to detect Yeo's frustration and
disappointment that the much-publicized roadmap to
democracy is still without a timeline; that the
efforts of the United Nations to facilitate and
advance the national reconciliation process in
Myanmar have so far yielded nothing; and that
pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San
Suu Kyi remains in detention.
Yeo did not
belabor the point, but the thrust was that
whatever happens in Myanmar will affect ASEAN as a
whole and its relationship with its dialogue
There can be no doubt that along
the corridors and on the sidelines of the ASEAN-EU
conference, there will be spirited discussions
about Yangon taking over the chairmanship of ASEAN
next year. Chairmanship of the group is rotated
annually among the bloc's 10 members. It will be
ASEAN's credibility and cohesion that will be
challenged and placed under defensive scrutiny.
Leaders in Myanmar are aware and, I would
suggest, grateful that ASEAN stood by it in the
face of previous challenges from EU countries and
Myanmar's leaders likewise are
aware that the continuing stalemate and lack of
meaningful political movement in Yangon have
weakened ASEAN's position considerably. There are
enough good people there to realize that ASEAN is
losing moral ground.
We all know, as does
Myanmar, what steps must be taken, and I shall not
go over these except to say that the difference
this time is that Myanmar's assumption of the
ASEAN chairmanship next year provides a definite
deadline and challenge for both the country and
the association. This is a matter that cannot be
swept under the carpet - a decision needs to be
made one way or the other.
naturally decide what is best for itself, but it
can no longer ignore or disregard the concerns of
its partners in ASEAN.
If it is clear to
the leaders in Yangon that they need more time for
their roadmap, then they need the moral courage to
stand by ASEAN the way ASEAN has stood by them.
One possible solution is for Myanmar to
opt out of assuming the chairmanship next year. It
is not the best way forward, but it is one way
out. Just as important, such a move would
demonstrate that Myanmar cares for ASEAN and prove
that, when necessary, it can rise to a higher
level of statesmanship.
Mathews,a former Singaporean ambassador to
Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of
Southeast Asian Studies.
2005 Verghese Mathews.)
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