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ASEAN Losing Patience with Burma

Ong Keng Yong, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, says Burma's refusal to allow democratic reform has damaged ASEAN's credibility. As he prepared for the start this week of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the secretary-general told VOA's Heda Bayron that ASEAN is losing patience with Burma.

BAYRON: "…Some ASEAN members have been very vocal about Burma…criticizing Burma and saying they're very disappointed with what's going on there. How do you think ASEAN will move forward on this issue?"

ONG: "…Basically what we are seeing in the last month or two is the realization that there is very little that the Myanmar side, which you call Burma, will offer to ASEAN. ASEAN is concerned about the impact of this issue…on our credibility and standing, because the world seems to think that ASEAN should be the one tackling this issue and bringing about some positive outcome…We took the line that…we would like to engage the Myanmar side to do more. So far the result has not been to our satisfaction, and therefore you see a sort of a hardening of the voices in ASEAN about the situation in Myanmar…We want to impress upon the Myanmar government that so far, our diplomatic, polite way has not been reciprocated by the authorities in Yangon, and we expect the Myanmar authorities, as a member of ASEAN, to be more responsive to the damage done to ASEAN by the Myanmar issue."

BAYRON: "Myanmar has not seen this kind of reaction from ASEAN, so what is their likely response?"

ONG: "Well they are very good poker players. They are keeping up a straight face. And the one thing…is that we don't want them to walk away from the table. Because if they walk away from the table, then whatever little opening we have to influence a certain outcome in Myanmar would be gone. And this is not an empty threat, because as you know Myanmar, they are quite accustomed to walking out of international organizations and other kinds of forums if they feel that the heat is too strong on them. So the preoccupation of the ASEAN foreign ministers in the last few years has always been to engage the Myanmar side constructively, without giving the excuse for them to walk away from the table…It's a fine balance. But the foreign minister of Myanmar…has been digging in and maintaining that…they should not be subjected to quote, unquote, 'pressure from ASEAN or anybody else.' But we hope that they would accept the argument that Myanmar has affected ASEAN's activities and our agenda, and we need to find a way to take this off the limelight, so to speak…"

BAYRON: "Some are asking, why now? Why is ASEAN putting the pressure (on) now, when Burma has been a member since '97? It's been nearly ten years."

ONG: "Well, it's possibly because of Myanmar's own doing. In the first instance they explained to us five years ago that they have their own road map… towards national reconciliation and democratization of their country. Four years ago they told us the road map would be implemented in this manner. Three years ago they said it is on course. Two years ago they said we are still on course but some elements have been put back. And then now, we don't know what happened to the road map. So the sense of some of our foreign ministers is that we have been taken for a ride…So, I suppose the explanation that some of our member countries will give you for the perceived hardening of their stand is that we have given a lot of time for this situation to be handled by the government in Myanmar…But the impression given…so far, is that they are not getting what they want, and they are really quote, unquote, 'losing their patience.'"

"…(the) ASEAN habit of working together is never to be confrontational and make things difficult for any member country. But I sense that they are really unhappy over what they see to be a leading up the garden path, and now there's no action, and they're left high and dry, so to speak."

BAYRON: "…You yourself mentioned a few months ago that… perhaps we should engage China and India into this issue. To what extent can these two Asian powers…change the equation there in Burma?"

ONG: "We believe that the people that matter to Myanmar, apart from ASEAN, would be the two countries that are very significant in their economy and in their day-to-day life, namely two neighboring countries called China and India…And if there is a chance to get things going in Myanmar, the guy in Myanmar would probably listen to those people who matter to them, and perhaps with the help of…India and China, something can develop."