VIENTIANE: Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo was among the first to find out Myanmar would forgo the chair of Asean – his Myanmar counterpart told him so when the two men found themselves alone in the restroom.
Minutes later, Yeo and Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win walked back to a conference room to join other South-East Asian foreign ministers assembled for their annual gathering, and Nyan Win made the landmark announcement over a cup of coffee.
“It was a relief to us,” Yeo told reporters. “I was in the bathroom with the Myanmar foreign minister and he said: yes we are going to announce our decision.”
Yeo responded: “Then it is important we rally around you.”
Nyan Win's announcement during the coffee break caught Asean ministers by surprise, who had expected a drawn-out debate over Myanmar's scheduled chairmanship in 2006, which pitted the regional bloc against the United States and the Europe.
The West had threatened to boycott the Asean summit in two years' time if Myanmar hosted it in its capacity as the group's chairman in 2006.
Myanmar's military junta has drawn international criticism for its poor democracy record and the continued detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, tainting other Asean countries as well.
“Their domestic policies and our interests as a region have been intertwined. It is good that they will be decoupled,” Yeo said.
He and other ministers claimed Myanmar made the announcement unilaterally, without any Asean countries demanding that Yangon relinquish the chair.
But he acknowledged that quiet pressure from Asean colleagues may have prodded the junta. Had Myanmar stuck to its guns, “it would have been a thorny problem” for Asean, as it was prepared to stand up to US pressure, he said.
“Pressure from within the family is of a different nature than external pressure. Did it work? It may have played a part,” he said.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar also said that the decision was entirely the Myanmar government's.
“The government of Myanmar announced it straightaway. Myanmar on its own announced to us that they have decided to forgo the chair,” he said.
The claims by Yeo and Syed Hamid would imply that Asean's policy of not interfering in each other's affairs has not been compromised. – AP