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A challenge for Myanmar

By Verghese Mathews - posted Friday, 18 March 2005

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.

But every 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 before leaving for Jakarta, where he was heading a delegation to the 15th ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union.


The sincerity with which Yeo spoke was obvious. He made it clear that Singapore recognised 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-publicised 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 belabour the point, but the thrust was that whatever happens in Myanmar will affect ASEAN as a whole and its relationship with its dialogue partners.

There can be no doubt that along the corridors and on the sidelines of the ASEAN-EU conference, there were spirited discussions about Yangon taking over the chair of ASEAN next year. This position 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 others. Myanmar's leaders are likewise 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 realise 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.


Myanmar must 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.

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Article edited by Angus Ibbott.
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This article was first published in The Asia Times on March 11, 2005.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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