TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRESS CONFERENCE BY MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS GEORGE YEO AT THE ASEAN FOREIGN MINISTERS' RETREAT, SENTOSA RESORT AND SPA, 20 FEBRUARY 2008

Minister: Thank you all for coming early. The reason is because we had a strong spirit of consensus and we are able to end the retreat two hours ahead of schedule, which is very nice and that is why we called the press conference earlier. Among the Foreign Ministers, we settled the detailed plan of action of implementation of the Charter. We fully expect it to be ratified at the next Summit in Bangkok in December this year. In fact, in the very Palace and on the very table around which the five Foreign Ministers of ASEAN established ASEAN fourty-one years ago. We are looking forward to that. Working towards it, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers have agreed that we should establish the Committee of Permanent Representatives immediately upon the ratification of the Charter, in effect 1st January next year. This means that every ASEAN country will appoint an ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta like the arrangement in the UN or in Brussels for the EU. Instead of calling special meetings, the good part of our business should be transacted in a routine way at the Secretariat with the ambassadors having powers of decision, powers of committing governments and countries.

We need to strengthen the Secretariat and to resource it adequately, we need two more Deputy Secretary Generals because the workload has increased a lot in the last few years. The ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint was signed at the Summit last year and there is a lot of work to be done. We have agreed for the Secretary-General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan to recruit the two new Deputy Secretary-Generals from the 1st of November in anticipation of the Charter being ratified at the end of the year. We also have got to look at the budget for the Secretariat to make sure that all the things that we want it to do, it will be able to do.

Two points which I want to highlight specifically to you, is that we have agreed to establish high level panels of officials to draft the terms of reference for the human rights body and to draft the dispute settlement mechanism, both envisaged in the Charter. The draft terms of reference to establish the high level panel on the human rights body will be tabled to the Ministers when we next meet at the AMM in Singapore in July this year. So once their terms of reference are approved, the high level panel can then proceed to do the actual drafting of the terms of reference for the human rights body. The last point I would like to raise is that we have agreed that the ASEAN year will begin from 1st of January. This means that Thailand as the next host will be in the Chair for one and a half years, and I am happy to say that the new Thai Foreign Minister, Noppadon welcomed the challenge because they have to host three Summits under their watch: the two foremost Summits at the end of the year plus a retreat Summit which the new Charter calls for. They have also agreed to host the next AMM Retreat in Thailand which is very nice of them. So this is all I have to report to you this afternoon, if you have any questions, I will be happy to answer them.

Q: (inaudible)

Minister: Myanmar was not discussed today, we discussed it last night and I gave my views to the media last night.

Q: (inaudible)

Minister: No, we did not have any detailed discussion on the EAS. We did not discuss expanding the EAS but we did agree last night that for the coming AMM meeting in Singapore in July, there will be a separate EAS Foreign Ministers Meeting. That we have agreed on yesterday.

Q: Minister, I am from Asahi Shimbun. I would like to ask you, were there any discussions about North Korea (inaudible) and also last year you mentioned that you would be visiting North Korea as the chair of ASEAN (inaudible)...

Minister: I'm planning to visit North Korea in May this year and last night the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN agreed for me to suggest to the North Korean government that it accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. So they have empowered me to make an offer to North Korea when I visit the country in May this year.

Q: (inaudible)

Minister: Let me repeat what I said last night. I presume you were not there. The Myanmar Foreign Minister informed us that in the new Constitution which will be put out for referendum in May, that draft Constitution will be presented probably at the end of March. When we asked about the eligibility to stand for election, he told us that the provision in the 1974 Constitution disqualifying citizens who have spouses who are non-citizens, who have children who are non-citizens, will be imported into the new Constitution to be presented for referendum. That was what the Myanmar Foreign Minister informed us.

Q: I'm Pathan from Thailand (inaudible)

Minister: No, the discussion was not about Aung San Suu Kyi specifically although you know our common position that ASEAN Ministers have called for her release and that we think that it be important for national reconciliation to involve her and the NLD. A number of us did note that this provision will not be acceptable in other ASEAN countries and does seem rather odd in this day and age.

Q: (inaudible)

Minister: When we said the Philippines, we are referring to the Philippines Congress, the House and the Senate. There is a public position but I believe the debate continues. Today, we saw that three more countries have ratified the Charter, making a total of four. As for the remaining countries it is a matter of weeks and month before the Charter is also ratified in those countries, except in the Philippines where it remains an issue. But I would say the sentiment among the Foreign Ministers is one of quiet confidence that in the end it is in our national interests and in our collective interests to ratify the Charter and to get the Charter implemented. It is only after the Charter has been ratified that we can hold every country against the standards that they have agreed to. If the Charter has not been ratified, then those standards should not apply. For these reason, while we cannot be sure, we are cautiously optimistic, let me say, about the ratification by the end of this year. Indeed this was the common expression of the leaders when they signed the Charter last year.

Q: (inaudible)

Minister: Now this is something they have to decide on their own. Whatever they have incooperated into the draft Constitution, in the end it is for the Myanmar people to vote yes or no to the referendum. What we are concerned about is the credibility of the process and that there must be provision for independent verification and many of us expressed the view that Myanmar cannot ignore the international dimension, that this is not something to be resolved only internally within Myanmar because it affects all of us in ASEAN. And it is in their own interest having gone through all these efforts to make sure that the referendum process, the election process or processes are credible and are independently verifiable.

Q: (inaudible)

Minister: No, under the ASEAN Charter, as a civilised way of resolving disputes among ourselves, we are instituting a dispute settlement mechanism so that when disputes arise, they need not be overly politicised, they should go to independent panels and the provisions entered into will be interpreted in a legal and legalistic way. For economic agreements, there are already enhanced procedures in place but there are other areas in which provisions have not yet been worked out and this is what we are talking about. So the terms of reference have been drawn out and then the actual drafting will be done.

Thank you very much.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Singapore