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Exclusive Interview with ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong on ASEAN-Burma Relation

VOA: Thank you very much for giving us time to interview you this morning despite of your busy day ahead. You are in town to commemorate 30 years relation of ASEAN and U.S. During the past ten years since Myanmar has joined ASEAN, ASEAN have had encountered awkward moments with U.S. due to U.S.' stance towards Myanmar. How would you like to review those moments Sir?

SG Ong: Of course we have differences with United States of America since ASEAN has 10 different countries. Some of our countries have different political systems. But overall I would say that U.S. has been generally positive about ASEAN. They have tried to work with us in wide verity of subjects. And over the years we found a kind of comfort level I would say. We don't agree on many things. But we agree to disagree and we try to make due with our respective positions. Of course it's not easy we look at the big picture and carry on with our relationship.

VOA: Last week in Nuremburg-Germany, ASEAN also marked 30 years anniversary of relationship with EU nations. EU External Affairs Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner said It's up to ASEAN partners to push Burma to apply human rights and democracy, to open dialogue for national reconciliation and finally to release democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Are there any ASEAN's strategies to push Myanmar in this regard?

SG Ong: Well, our strategies have always been encouraged Myanmar to use ASEAN to reach out to the world, use ASEAN to socialize their national bureaucracy to integrate into the Southeast Asian economy and global economy. Our leadership believe that the more Myanmar economy is integrated with the world, the more the incentives and compulsion to join the rest of the international community in the manner that is mature, sophisticated, commensurate with what we are doing in the rest of the Southeast Asia. Our strategies remain the same. We continue to stress economic integration. We continue to stress social, cultural incorporation in order to get Myanmar participation fully in the ASEAN agenda. We do not see our idea been imposing on the Myanmar Government because they have the right to choose whether or not they want to participate in our meetings and activities. So far they have been, I would say, positive. As far as possible, Myanmar has attended every meeting that we have organized in ASEAN. Actually we are quite encouraged by some of our capacity building result. Because they, Myanmar officials are seen to be more knowledgeable and more able to groove with the activities we have. So in the Nuremburg meeting we had a good exchange of views with the Europeans. I don't think they agree with what ASEAN has done. But they feel that they have put across their position to us and ASEAN should take into account how Europeans feel about Myanmar. Similarly here in the U. S. American position has always been stressing their position to the ASEAN side and hope that ASEAN can convey its position to people in Myanmar, which we have done. The idea now is that we must maintain our dialogue and cooperation. Our strategy is to bring Myanmar into the Global community through economic integration and this will continue.

VOA: Last year you said that Myanmar's neighbors China and India should be more persuasive to push Myanmar for democratic changes. As we all know China joined Russia to veto US drafted resolution on Myanmar, which actually is not meant for sanctions but to encourage releasing political prisoners, to improve human rights situation, etc.... India has its own agenda sort of balancing power in the region so no and so forth. Are you still optimistic about their role being critical on Myanmar issues?

SG Ong: I am. I think that the neighbors of Myanmar whether ASEAN, whether China, Whether India, all can play constructive roles to encourage Myanmar leadership to move in a certain direction which will open country closer to the world opinion. The position of the Indian and Chinese, being immediate neighbors of Myanmar have been very sophisticated. They realized that bilateral relations must open;- trade must carry on;- and people to people relations must be maintained. They don't want to interfere in day-to-day internal affairs. But I believe they have stressed the need for Myanmar leadership not to undermine ASEAN credibility because China and India both have very strong relationship with ASEAN and ASEAN as an organization is undermined they would have problem themselves. How would they want to deal with a discredited organization? So they have been quite consistent. ASEAN must continue to be credible;- must be a well respective organization. ASEAN must be able to play constructive role in the regional affairs in Southeast Asia. And ASEAN must help to integrate the regional economy not only Myanmar other country like Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam into the Global systems. So the Chinese and the Indians believe that they have conveyed these positions consistently in a very sophisticated manner to the leadership in Myanmar. Chinese position in UNSC has to be seen as context of a bigger consideration. Chinese seldom use the veto as you know. The way they explain to me is that this is a principle they have to preserve. They are looking at the role of the UN Security Council and issue at hand. They feel that issue at hand should be discussed in a manner, which will not undermine traditional position and function of the UN Security Council. So we hope that Myanmar authorities would appreciate this rather important stand taken by the Chinese. Not to take it as it is because Chinese support everything that's happening in the country. We'll see how it goes.

VOA: Some countries like China and Russia opposed UN Security Council's action on Myanmar because Myanmar does not pose any threat to International peace and security - and insisted that UN Human Rights Council would be the proper venue to address Myanmar's Human Rights issues. Now U. S. is informally negotiating with UNHRC to propose a resolution, which could lead to form a panel to investigate Human Rights violation in Myanmar. What ASEAN ought to do in this regard?

SG Ong: We stress two things. Whether in this case or other similar consideration before any UN or other International body, there must be a process. A process is the procedure to raise an issue, to discuss an issue, exchange views and to make a decision on the issue. So the process must be followed. Number two: What is the objective of this debate? If objective is to encourage desired outcome, you pursue it in a way that bring about the desired outcome, and if this is a kind of Diplomatic lynching of parties concern, you are not bringing any result. The way I see is that is the case. Myanmar government has been quite well organized. They just hunkered downed and take the beating. But nothing's happened in the country. So what is happening in our diplomatic relationship with other countries on the issue of Myanmar, we stressed what is the objective? If the objectives are to bring about desired outcome-positive outcome: release of political prisoners so on and so forth-, then we have to find other ways. Not just to push an issue to international forum. So visit at the Human Rights Commission, everybody does the analysis and studies and then what? I just came from our visit to Geneva and we discuss with the people in ILO. You know the issue of ILO with Myanmar:- always been up and up, down and down, sometime up, sometime down. What has happened now is they have come to kind of understanding. There will be certain ILO initiative; in a response to Myanmar authorities in the country will facilitate ILO. I thought this is the very positive development. Because if you just keep on servicing the issue at ILO and just discuss it, particular action on the ground will not happen. Process is important and objective is important. And objective must always be to bring about desired outcome in Myanmar. Outcome that you desire, outcome that we desire, must be the better life for the people. At this moment as we say in ASEAN leadership meeting if the focus is on political prisoners, Myanmar authorities should try and find a way to release its prisoners if they are no longer harmful to the system. As Myanmar leadership always explain to us during our Asian meeting over the years, they have done many things and they have coped integrated and reconciled with all these people who opposed them. So our ministers and leaders are saying, in that case, then, take there matters off the radar scope you know. Why keep the political prisoner and let confuse the issue. So I think process and objective must always be maintained. ASEAN cannot dictate to the Human Rights Commission or anybody elsewhere what they want to do about Myanmar? But our role is to try our best to explain the situation. Actually it should be done by the Myanmar leadership, Myanmar Government. But they are, to use the word is currently been used here in Washington, the bunker mentality: they are in the bunker. So I think as a result of this communication is not coming across. And we feel that very often, ASEAN is asked to explain for the Myanmar government and we can't do that all the time. They have to come out and explain what is happening on their own terms and in their own way. But as far as questions directed to me regard to what ASEAN is doing about Myanmar, then I can explain. At this moment we are committed to helping Myanmar to integrate into the regional economy, to globalize itself. In doing so we stress to the Myanmar officials, they have to come out. They have to build up their own capacity and strengthen their capability. How they can do that? We have different programs. Of course it's not easy because of worldwide different sanctions against Myanmar. But we hope that in the limited way that ASEAN countries can do we will help Myanmar official to be more socialized to the happenings around the region in the world. This can continue to the overall opening and reconciliation in the country.

VOA: Everybody is very much interested in ASEAN Charter Blue Print. Will there be any kind of punitive action against ASEAN member like Myanmar who is not coping with the system?

SG Ong: Well let me stress that ASEAN Charter has been developed. In a way to take ASEAN to the new time that we are in, we are not there to develop ASEAN Charter to deal with Myanmar. So as long as understood that ASEAN Charter is not an object to handle the Myanmar situation, - I think we are on the right track. Now the charter has several interesting proposal. One is how to deal with members that fails to comply with the obligations and responsibilities of ASEAN. We stress to the Myanmar friends that it's not meant to go and punish anybody in Myanmar. It is constitutional in an Association. In every organization, you have a constitution,: you have to always say what is the obligation of member, what if you don't comply with the obligation. So we have tried our best to assure the Myanmar authorities this charter is not designed to wag anyone in Myanmar. It's designed for the ASEAN body. We also have interesting provision in there, which we hope our charter will write it out nicely and talk about decision making in ASEAN. Again it's not targeted at Myanmar. ASEAN is now 40 years old. This year we are celebrating our 40th. Anniversary. And very often many decisions could not be implemented- because some countries have to take more time to prepare their domestic and national infrastructure. But many cases it's also an excuse. They say, you make decision based on consensus and I don't give you my consent. So we can't move. Therefore we design something our Eminent Persons Group they thought truly and they feel that we should try to improve the decision-making. And this decision-making process in not designed to deal with Myanmar. Myanmar as we explained to them as part of the group, Charter has been developed not for meeting the problem in Myanmar charter is developed for the whole body for next 50 years. So we are sensitive to the position of every member country. In the longer way we hope that we will develop a Charter, which is effective, which is not too long, which can address the problems confronting ASEAN and to bring ASEAN to the next 40 years. Hopefully our friends in Myanmar will look at the work that we are doing on the charter in that light: not designed to single out anybody for action. It's actually designed to bring the whole association to a new life.

VOA: Thank you very much and we really appreciate it Sir.

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