Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs for an assessment of the ASEAN Summit and an update of the major initiatives discussed and agreed upon, such as the ASEAN Charter.
Ms Irene Ng has asked for an assessment of the recent ASEAN Summit in Singapore, which was held from 18 – 22 November. Overall, the Singapore Summit achieved its main outcomes. Although Myanmar was a major concern, it did not derail the proceedings. I will respond to the questions on Myanmar from Ms Ng later.
2 First and foremost, Leaders signed the milestone ASEAN Charter. This will transform ASEAN into a more effective and rules-based organisation. This in turn will change the way ASEAN is being perceived, both from within and without the region. However, to ensure that ASEAN realises its full potential as envisaged in the Charter, we need to bring it into force as soon as possible. Thus, ratification and implementation will be a key priority for the next phase of Singapore’s Chairmanship as ASEAN Leaders have agreed to aim for ratification of the ASEAN Charter within a year. Singapore itself has already deposited its Instrument of Ratification on 7 January. In addition, as Chair, we will also work towards putting in place the new mechanisms of ASEAN, including dispute settlement mechanisms and start work on the terms of reference of the proposed ASEAN human rights body.
3 Second, Leaders endorsed a Blueprint on the ASEAN Economic Community. This will help ASEAN realise its goal of an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 by setting out clear targets and timelines for the implementation of various activities. ASEAN will now begin working on implementing the Blueprint quickly, so that our 10 ASEAN economies can integrate into a single market and production base, capable of competing alongside regional powerhouses like India and China. Similar blueprints will also be established for the other two pillars of community building – the Political-Security and Socio-Cultural pillars.
4 Third, Leaders also addressed global issues of concern to the region, namely “Energy, Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development” and issued three significant Declarations. In particular, ASEAN has resolved to cooperate more closely on key environmental issues such as combating transboundary environmental pollution and sustainable forest management. In fact, with the global focus on climate change, the Singapore Summit has paved the way for sustained dialogue on this key issue and increased regional cooperation. At the subsequent UNFCCC meetings in Bali last month, for instance, ASEAN agreed to work on an ASEAN Climate Change Initiative, which will strengthen ASEAN’s coordination and cooperation in addressing Climate Change.
5 Fourth, besides strengthening ASEAN internally, ASEAN also had productive Summit meetings with its Dialogue Partners like China, Japan, Korea, India and the EU. ASEAN celebrated the 10th Anniversary of ASEAN+3 relations by adopting an important Joint Statement and workplan on East Asia Cooperation. We also had good discussions with the EU on how to deepen our cooperation at the special ASEAN-EU Commemorative Summit marking 30 years of relations. Finally, the 3rd East Asia Summit was a very substantive meeting, with the Leaders discussing the environment and climate change, as well as agreeing to deepen EAS cooperation in important areas like energy security, economics and natural disaster mitigation.
6 We now look forward to the second half of Singapore’s ASEAN Chairmanship, which will culminate with the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, Post-Ministerial Conferences and the ASEAN Regional Forum that Singapore will host in July. We will continue to push ASEAN to implement important initiatives like the ASEAN Charter, strengthen cooperation in key areas like the environment and transborder challenges, as well as deepen external relations with its various partners.
Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong: Sir, several ASEAN members, including [the] Philippines and in some quarters [in] Indonesia, have indicated that they will stall the signing of the ASEAN Charter until Myanmar resolves its problem. Can I ask the Minster how confident he is that the ASEAN Charter can be ratified by the one … (inaudible)?
I think it very important that we get this Charter ratified, and Singapore as the Chair will do all that we can to try to ensure this.
Mr Siew Kum Hong: Sir, the Minister has mentioned that the ongoing approach of drafting the terms of reference for the ASEAN human rights body will proceed. I just would like to ask the Minister, how will this process incorporate the views of Singaporeans and Singapore civil society given that the ASEAN Charter aims to be a … to create a people-centred … (inaudible).
Various civil society groups have already been active in giving their views on the ASEAN Charter and the proposed human rights body. The way to do this is through the ASEAN Secretariat. Think tanks have also done so, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, and a Working Group on ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism currently chaired by Mr Marzuki Darusman and Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn.
*474. Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) why did ASEAN heed Myanmar’s last minute request not to allow UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to brief the East Asia Summit although this was earlier announced; and (b) whether ASEAN’s credibility has suffered as a result of its handling of Myanmar at the ASEAN Summit.
*475. Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs what was ASEAN’s response to Myanmar’s assertion that it did not welcome ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts and if it meant that regional diplomacy is now irrelevant.
Mr Speaker Sir, please allow me to take the two questions together just like the other one.
2 There is an international consensus that the UN and the mission of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor Professor Ibrahim Gambari offer the best hope for a peaceful transition to national reconciliation in Myanmar. Prof Gambari had the cooperation of the Myanmar regime in his recent visits, and made more progress than anyone else has managed to achieve in recent years.
3 It was with this in mind and after consultations with regional countries that we invited Prof Gambari to brief the East Asia Summit leaders and to hear their views. The early reactions from Myanmar suggested that we could proceed with the briefing. On 14 November, we were told directly by a very senior Myanmar leader that if the briefing would be of benefit to Myanmar, Myanmar would have no objections to it. On this note, Singapore proceeded to finalise arrangements for Prof Gambari to brief the East Asia Summit. PM Lee also spoke to UNSG Ban Ki-moon, who agreed that it would be useful for Prof Gambari to give the briefing.
4 The Myanmar Government however raised objections a few days before the ASEAN Summit, by which time it was not possible for us to disinvite Prof Gambari. Nevertheless, as late as the morning before the ASEAN Summit, the Myanmars agreed to consider a proposal that Prof Gambari brief the ASEAN leaders instead of EAS leaders.
5 Myanmar’s position was unequivocally laid out only during the informal dinner meeting of ASEAN leaders that same evening, when PM Thein Sein declared that the Myanmar Government regarded the situation in Myanmar as a domestic affair and only Myanmar, not the UN, could brief the EAS or ASEAN leaders, and Prof Gambari should only report to the UN Security Council. Myanmar wanted to deal with the UN directly and did not want ASEAN to play any political role. Once Myanmar took this position, ASEAN could not proceed. ASEAN works by consensus and we have to respect Myanmar’s position, whether we agree with it or not. ASEAN has stepped aside and Myanmar now must, by its own choice, face the international community itself.
6 This does not mean that ASEAN is indifferent to the situation in Myanmar. As Minister George Yeo had explained to Parliament on 22 October last year, it is in our interest to keep Myanmar as a member of the family as ASEAN has a direct interest in the country. What happens in Myanmar affects the well-being and interests of the rest of Southeast Asia. We do not want to see Myanmar descend into chaos or implode. While Myanmar has decided that it will deal with the UN directly, we will certainly continue to support Prof Gambari’s efforts if he feels that ASEAN can make a contribution. That said, so long as Myanmar insists on dealing with the UN and international community on its own, what ASEAN and any other country can do is obviously limited. Nonetheless, ASEAN stands ready to do what we can when and if Myanmar changes its mind.
7 It is obviously unsatisfactory that Myanmar sees no role for an organisation of which it is a member, and on an issue which affects us all. But this is not a matter of ASEAN’s credibility. In the Chairman’s Statement, ASEAN made it clear that a return to the status quo ante was not tenable and Myanmar must move forward with or without ASEAN’s help. The statement elaborated on what Myanmar should do, including working with the UN so that there will be a meaningful dialogue between the regime and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. When PM Lee read out the statement, he had the support of all the other ASEAN leaders.
8 Prof Gambari had described his visit to Singapore as having been “extremely worthwhile”. Singapore facilitated his meeting with a group of ASEAN Foreign Ministers and calls on the Philippine and Thai leaders. It should be noted that Prof Gambari had met the Myanmar Prime Minister in Singapore. Prof Gambari also had meetings with senior representatives of China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and various EU countries. These exchanges allowed interested countries to hear the UN’s perspectives, and conversely Prof Gambari left Singapore with a better understanding of the perspectives and concerns of key countries. Prof Gambari had found support for his mission from all those he met.
9 Prof Gambari is waiting to confirm his next visit to Myanmar. We will continue to support him. It is important that Singapore, ASEAN and the international community continue to give our full support to the Gambari mission as this offers the best hope for progress and a peaceful transition to national reconciliation in Myanmar.
10 In the larger scheme of things, the more important issue for ASEAN than Myanmar is our Charter. We should not and will not let the Myanmar issue slow down the integration of our region. The ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Economic Community are strategic developments that will set the direction for ASEAN to move forward to become a more cohesive, integrated, systematic and rules-based organisation, so that our region can make faster progress. Singapore has ratified the ASEAN Charter and we hope that the other ASEAN countries, including Myanmar, will do so expeditiously. ASEAN should not rule out amending the Charter so that it can come into force under the ASEAN-minus-X principle should some countries be unable to ratify the Charter in time, so that the rest of us are not held back.
Mr Sin Boon Ann: Sir, other than the firm registration of disapproval, I would like to ask Minister what further actions ASEAN intends to take by the member countries to up the ante on the disapproval of Myanmar’s actions especially if they choose not to respond or respond in a timely manner that we expect them to.
I wouldn’t underestimate the impact of the position ASEAN has taken on Myanmar. The Myanmar Government has taken this into account. As to whether there are further measures that could be done, as long as ASEAN is a consensus based organization, we can only do what its members are willing to let the organization do. As I said in my reply just now, ASEAN stands ready and willing to work to see how best we can bring a peaceful national reconciliation in Myanmar.
Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong: Sir, so while Myanmar can assert that its problems are its own domestic affair, can I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it is not an entirely domestic issue as it has great bearing on ASEAN not just as a grouping as countries like the EU, US and some countries like Canada have indicated that it will affect relations with ASEAN. Given this situation, can I ask the Minister, from the last ASEAN Summit, that the Minister says that Myanmar has a sense of responsibility towards ASEAN as a member and if it does not show its responsibility towards ASEAN as a member, should not ASEAN then take seriously the possibility of taking stronger actions against Myanmar?
This is actually a somewhat similar question like what Mr Sin had asked me just now. My reply would be the same. What ASEAN can do really depends on what its members are willing to allow the organization to do. And as I said, ASEAN is a consensus based organization and on this particular issue, ASEAN has stated its position very clearly of what the next step should be for Myanmar.
Ms Inderjit Singh: So can I ask the Minister if Myanmar gets expelled from ASEAN, then will the mode of decision making change. Can this consensus thing be changed to one of a more decision making process?
I don’t think that expelling Myanmar from ASEAN is a solution. Myanmar, as a regime, is already very isolated and I don’t think it can get more isolated than it is. And to expel it, I don’t think is particularly constructive. As Minister George Yeo mentioned in October last year, as long as Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN family, we still have channels of communication with it and through which we hopefully can influence the situation in Myanmar.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Singapore