The Asean Ministerial Meeting, Asean Regional Forum and the Post Minsterial Conference in Phnom Penh raised several issues, but Myanmar hogged the limelight, writes MAZWIN NIK ANIS.
THE 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) took an unprecedented move during its 36th Ministerial Meeting held in Phnom Penh between June 16 and June 20 by having an open and frank discussion on the internal affairs of its member, Myanmar.
Even though members of the grouping insisted that the move was not a departure from its policy of non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs, observers were of the opinion that it was “a step into reality” where interference, no matter how subtle, was inevitable.
The non-interference policy, which was enshrined in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-East Asia (TAC) signed in Bali in 1976, is the only legally binding document for Asean.
The issue of Myanmar was discussed right from when the Asean senior officials met, and continued to the Ministerial Meeting and later the Asean Regional Forum (ARF).
Myanmar’s internal affairs came under the spotlight when followers of the National League for Democracy and military authorities clashed on May 30.
Since the incident, opposition and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and several party members have been held under “protective custody”.
Realising the implications Myanmar’s internal problem has on the region, the rest of Asean’s members took the opportunity to use the Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) as a platform to express their views and concerns about the situation.
“Even though what is happening is an internal affair, it has an international interest and dimension so Asean members felt that we should talk about it. The discussions had been frank, candid and interactive,” said Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar.
“We are satisfied with the answers given by Myanmar and the assurance by the government that Suu Kyi will be released once there is normalcy,” said Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Hor Namhong.
“We had only expressed opinion on the need for Myanmar to be seen to be doing something positive to remedy the situation and the early release of Suu Kyi is the answer.”
Myanmar should also be given the credit for “volunteering information” to its fellow Asean members, reflecting the grouping’s maturity and openness to discuss issues and problems.
Asean’s initiative to discuss Myanmar had, in a sense, taken the heat off the country and the grouping as a whole, as US Secretary of State Collin Powell was left with nothing much to say about the crisis during the ARF, apart from reiterating the US’ earlier stand.
On another aspect, Asean has proven that it is far from being an “insignificant” grouping when China and Russia agreed to be signatories to the TAC, while India is also looking into the possibility of participating in it.
When this materialises, it will bring greater political and economic stability not only in South-East Asia but also in the greater region.
The grouping has also decided to look further into the formation of the Asean Economic Community, which would contribute to narrow or close the development gap within the region.
Asean and China have also agreed to strengthen their cooperation in agriculture and information technology.
Both parties have also agreed on measures to accelerate the surge in Asean-China trade in an equitable and sustainable way, including a prospective free trade area within 10 years.
When this and participation by China, Russia and India in the TAC materialise, Asean will certainly neither be dead nor dormant. It will be actively spreading its influence and the now-familiar Asean way outwards.
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