Burma should seize chance to thaw ties with West: Lee

August 10, 2009
Singapore Democrats

This post is at least a year old. Some of the links in this post may no longer work correctly.

Mia M Gonzalez
Business Mirror

Myanmar should seize the opportunity presented by a possible shift in the position of Western governments, including the United States, in engaging with that country by making a “gesture” that would convey its willingness to improve relations.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with Asean journalists at the Istana on Friday that leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) feel that Myanmar (originally known as Burma until the junta renamed it), more than ever before, has a chance to mend ties with the West.

“From the sense of the Asean leaders when we met in the Asean leaders’ meeting, Myanmar actually has an opportunity now because the Americans have a new government since Mr. Obama with Hillary Clinton, and they are rethinking their position on Myanmar. The Europeans are also reconsidering their positions on Myanmar [are] and not so stridently insistent on do this or that, as which they used to do,” Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Lee, who was responding to questions on the issue, said this presents “an opportunity for Myanmar to make some gesture, to shift the position so you’re not completely just stuck where you are.”

The Southeast Asian country, whose human-rights record has put Asean in an awkward position when engaging its Western dialogue partners can, for instance, “show that you can understand this and you would like to improve your relations,” said Mr. Lee. “It doesn’t mean that ayou have to concede what people are demanding of you but you are prepared to engage and you would like to thaw the relationship. I think that might be an opportunity. This is an opportunity to do that, which should not be missed. And I think that’s still true.”

Foreign Minister George Yeo said in another interview with visiting Southeast Asian and Middle East journalists last week that “there’s no way that Myanmar can embark on its own road to the future whether it is socialist or capitalist or anywhere unless it is connected to the rest of the world.”

Because of that, Yeo added, “it has to take into account the views of others. It cannot ignore that, even though we recognize that [it has its] own judicial process and that judicial process must be allowed to take its course.”

Asked about the extent of Asean’s influence on Myanmar, which has ratified the Asean Charter and participated in drafting the terms of reference of the Asean intergovernmental human-rights body, Mr. Yeo said Asean exerts “some influence on” Myanmar “but we must be realistic in the influence that we are able to wield.”

He went on: “What can we do? Can we use force? It would not be wise. Can we use trade sanctions? The Europeans and the Americans have done their worst, it has not worked. Can we criticize? Yes we can. Should we engage? Some people said yes, some people said no. We decided on balance that good engagement is leverage, that we can have some influence over the process. That’s how it is.”

‘Signs of willingness to do more’

Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong, former Asean Secretary-General, said in an interview with the BusinessMirror during a break in the Asia-Middle East Media Roundtable on Thursday that Myanmar has shown signs of willingness to “do more with the rest of the Asean.”

Ong, who is also director of the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said Myanmar is apparently “interested in living up to the requirements to the Asean Charter” and did not impede deliberations on the drafting of the terms of reference for the Asean human-rights body.

Ong thinks Myanmar is apparently keen on pursuing economic reforms, having committed to abide by the timelines and goals in the Asean Economic Community.

“Looking at the way they [Burmese officials] embrace the ideas and the ideals in the Charter and the way they approached the human-rights body and the way they are implementing the process for the economic community building, I’m quite optimistic that they are actually willing to do more with the rest of Asean….I think there is a desire on the part of the leadership to do more,” he said.

The adoption of Burma’s Constitution and the completion of its own national reconciliation process “signal that whatever excuses they had in the past to go forward has now been minimized.”

Ong said that having done their internal work, Myanmar authorities “just have to proceed to have the election; after that they should have the various elements come into play.”

Overall, he added, “if we are able to continue our quiet diplomacy, our firm persuasion, I think we can get some progress in the coming months,” but quickly added that “the problem is that everything is defined by Aung San Suu Kyi”, the Nobel laureate prodemocracy leader who has been under house arrest for 13 years.

He said Asean foreign ministers, among others, are trying to persuade Myanmar authorities “to show some kind of goodwill that this issue be taken a bit off from the in-your-face kind of status now.”

Ong added: “Every time we talk about anything, it has to do with Aung San Suu Kyi and it’s going to be troubling us for a long time to come if we don’t allow that to be taken out off the main item on the radar  scope.”

He said he believes the Myanmar people “will also support the idea that Aung San Suu Kyi must not be the main defining issue on how to go forward,” but there are also military officials in Myanmar “who feel that she should not get away easy.”

So, Ong asked,  “How do we bridge this gap? I think the Asean leadership are now trying their best to talk to the Myanmar military leaders to find some compromise in the center. I don’t know how successful they can be but I think our Asean goal is to try to minimize any further deterioration. In other words, we hope that the lady would not be jailed because of this intrusion by the American guy.”

He was referring to John Yettaw, an American who had evaded tight security and entered Suu Kyi’s home, supposedly in an attempt to rescue her. Yettaw’s act had botched the May 27 release of Suu Kyi, who faces five more years of allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest.

Ong said Asean has been quietly lobbying behind the scenes “because we know that we cannot be seen to be pushing this thing in too hard because then it would just destroy the little steps or the little confident posture which we are seeing now some of the Myanmar leaders are prepared to bank on.”

The challenge to Asean, according to him, “is to talk behind the camera, lobby off the stage and, more important, show that, look, you have so many years of doing what you’re going to do, is it really helping your country? Now you can claim that sanctions and isolation may not be effective, but you should not be crowing about this and run away feeling you have weathered the worst storm.”

With its Constitution in place and national reconciliation efforts ongoing, national consolidation would only succeed if there is economic growth that would improve the plight of the poor.

Ong added: “What we need to do is to convince Myanmar that while we are prepared to look at other comprehensive issues for our relations within Asean and within Myanmar, you should also go beyond your rigid stand. And unfortunately, whether you like it or not, the world thinks Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment as the benchmark and we should try to find a way to overcome that.”

The more the junta keeps her, “the more the world is agitated against you and agitated against Asean. Now we’re trying to go this way. I think there are people in Myanmar who understand what we’re saying. We have to give them the encouragement, the solid reason to do action and hopefully by constant persuasion, cajoling and showing them the good positive side of this desired outcome, maybe we can do something more. So for the time being, we will just do that,” he said.

He expressed hope that Myanmar authorities “would become more savvy.”

If the junta does “something very basic, I think Asean countries would find the incentive to rally around strongly with Myanmar and provide them more encouragement to do more. But right now, Myanmar has not given any incentive,” Ong said.

Mr. Goh in Myanmar

Fielding questions at a luncheon conference on Asia-Middle East engagement with editors and senior journalists from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, China and India on Thursday, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said Myanmar is “one example of the world generally looking at a country over a particular issue”—Suu Kyi.

“I have been there many times, and I know that Myanmar is not just Aung San Suu Kyi, it’s a much more complex problem,” said Goh, who last met with Myanmar leaders in June.

He said it would be difficult to give in to the demands of the opposition to take full  reins of Myanmar without giving a role to the military, even if the latter is part of the problem there.

Goh said Myanmar’s military is “very much a part of the problem but it’s also part of the solution,” a description he also applied to Suu Kyi.

“You cannot just take away the army and let those people run the country without a role for the armed forces. They have to worry about their own lives, the lives of their family members, their own prospects, their own career, and the insurgents can still be active and they have to therefore be part of the solution even though they are at the moment part of the problem,” Goh said.

And, while Suu Kyi is viewed by the West as the solution, he thinks the Nobel laureate is “part of the solution” and “part of the problem as well” because she has not given up her claim on leadership, which she won in 1990 but was negated by a military coup.

“She cannot be the solution, she is part of the solution. But at the same time, she is also part of the problem because she believes that her party, having won the 1990 elections which were thrown aside by the armed forces, that she is in fact the legitimate government, not the present regime,” Goh said.

He stressed that in developing countries, “once there’s a coup, you’re out, you can’t be going back and say, ‘I should be in the government.’ I mean, that’s history. That’s 19 years ago.”

In his view, therefore, Suu Kyi “should realize that if she wants to come back to be in charge of government, then she must find a way to win the next elections which should be held next year.” But he conceded the setup is “of course under rather special rules and regulations and laws; a controlled kind of democracy with 25 percent of the seats reserved for the armed forces and the rest through open elections.”

He said that if Suu Kyi “realizes that she has to be part of the solution and at the same time she’s a part of the problem, for the military government to reconcile with her, she should offer certain concessions” sought by the military government such as publicly favoring the lifting of sanctions.

“For as long as she’s in favor of sanctions, the military government will say that you are in fact using the West to put pressure on the country. How could you as a national ask for sanctions to be imposed on the people of Myanmar? So there will be no agreement. But if you say lift sanctions, then at least there’s a chance for both sides to talk,” Goh said.

Goh said he had told Myanmar leaders the importance of ensuring that their 2010 national election is “fair, free, legitimate”; must involve all political forces including  Suu Kyi; and that they should be prepared to accept whatever the results may be.

“We have to encourage the present government to move along the lines which they want to move, which is to win elections next year, but please abide by the election results. If you don’t, the second time you renounce election results, I think I’ll be in trouble with everybody else, including Asean members who have supported Myanmar’s cautious approach,” Goh said.

He said that if Myanmar does not overcome the “first hurdle of a stable government” backed by the general population, everything would be downhill from thereon; but if it does and the necessary policy reforms are implemented, it is likely to “boom” in just 10 years.

Asked what is in store for the long term in Myanmar, Goh said: “If you don’t cross the first hurdle of a stable government supported by most Myanmar people, there would be no longer-term for Myanmar. As simple as that. It’s going to go right down.”

He added: “But if you will begin to have a unity government, one which reconciles the different forces at work, and you can begin to put it into place many of the policies that we have in Singapore. Leadership is important, law and order, a probusiness environment; work out the necessary strategy for Myanmar. If it pursues the right path, the right economic policies, in 10 years, you’ll boom.”

Goh said that on a “steady path, Myanmar, with its rich resources and human talent, should be able to be like Thailand today in 20 years’ time.”