Asean is 'on the right track' with Myanmar, what's needed is 'strategic patience': Vivian Balakrishnan

He also said that when one is hasty and in a hurry, one often cedes negotiating advantage to the other side.

Faris Alfiq | February 18, 2022, 12:04 PM

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Asean is currently "on the right track" in dealing with Myanmar, and what is needed right now is "strategic patience", Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said during a virtual doorstop interview with reporters on Feb. 17.

Vivian was responding to a question posed by Mothership regarding Singapore's disappointment on the lack of progress made in implementing the Five-Points Consensus, and whether there is a need for Asean to relook at the agreement for progress to be made.

Vivian also shared that when one is hasty and in a hurry, one often cedes negotiating advantage to the other side.

The foreign minister was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to participate in the Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat on Feb. 17, chaired by Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn, in Cambodia's capacity as the Asean Chair this year.

Asean a "glass half-full, and filling"

Vivian responded to another question on a survey by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute which found that over 70 per cent of respondents from Southeast Asia find Asean "too slow and ineffective" and unable to cope with the dynamic changes in the region. Over 30 per cent of those surveyed also felt that Asean's responses to Myanmar were not good enough.

"First, I'm glad that people even care about Asean. Care enough to criticise it. That is already valuable in its own right," Vivian said.

He added that there is always this "impatience with Asean".

He further said that there are no regional organisations in the world with the extent of "diversity" such as Asean's, and as a result, Asean need to operate on a consensus principle.

"That is why a great amount of negotiations and meetings occur before we actually settle on a decision," he said.

However, he highlighted that Asean has achieved peace, economic development and economic integration, and that he views Asean as a "glass half-full and filling".

In the case of Myanmar, Vivian pointed out that there will not be a "quick and easy solution".

Even so, it does not mean that he approves of that what the Tatmadaw is doing, as every life lost is a tragedy.

Vivian also said that he shares the sense of urgency that people in Asean have.

However, the regional grouping has to persuade and mobilise a "very diverse" group of countries, and that different Asean states are affected differently by the situation in Myanmar, he explained.

Myanmar has never been able to arrive at the sense of national unity: Vivian

He also shared that the situation in Myanmar has been going on for seven or eight decades, and the country has never been able to arrive at a sense of national unity, common purpose, and shared values and norms.

When the National League for Democracy (NLD) was in charge of the country, Vivian described it as a "democracy in transition".

"Many people think democracy is just about having elections," he said. "Actually, democracy depends on the values and norms shared by the population at large."

According to Vivian, Myanmar has yet to reach that stage, and the coup in 2021 was a "major setback".

Humanitarian assistance needed in Myanmar

Nevertheless, Vivian said that Myanmar needs humanitarian assistance in the short term.

He shared that Singapore has contributed funds, oxygen concentrators, and medical equipment to Myanmar.

And this is done "in a way where we don't get involved in the local politics, but we just want to help our friends in Myanmar," he said.

As such, humanitarian assistance is another "big item" on the agenda, and Asean will contribute through the Asean Humanitarian centre.

Asean ministers endorse Sokhonn as the Asean Chair's Special Envoy on Myanmar

According to a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), during the retreat, Asean foreign ministers endorsed the appointment of Sokhonn as the Asean Chair's Special Envoy on Myanmar.

The ministers had "a frank exchange" on the situation in Myanmar and expressed concern with reports of continued violence, deterioration of the humanitarian situation and the lack of progress in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus.

Vivian emphasised the need for Asean and Myanmar to make expeditious and substantive progress in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, including the facilitation of the Special Envoy's visit to Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned, MFA added.

They also agreed that until there is significant progress in implementing the Five-Point Consensus, Asean should maintain its decision reached at the 38th and 39th Summits of inviting a non-political representative from Myanmar to Asean meetings.

In addition, Vivian underscored that the Myanmar issue cannot disrupt Asean's priorities, MFA added.

He reiterated Singapore's commitment to working with Cambodia, and other Asean member states on the full implementation of the Five-Point Consensus and relevant Asean decisions.

Vivian reaffirmed Singapore's support for Cambodia's Asean Chairmanship

At the Retreat, Sokhonn briefed the ministers on Cambodia's priorities and deliverables for its Chairmanship.

They had in-depth discussions on Asean's Covid-19 recovery efforts, its community-building efforts, external relations and regional economic integration.

Vivian reaffirmed Singapore's support for Cambodia's Asean Chairmanship, and commitment to work with Cambodia in areas of mutual interest, including the strengthening of Asean's competitiveness and regional integration through implementing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and expediting vaccine rollout across the region and in sustainable development, to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

He also encouraged Asean member states to explore cooperation, particularly on Smart Cities, the digital economy, cybersecurity and health.

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Top image via Ministry of Foreign Affairs