Wed, 24 Jul 1996

Gyaw defends Yangon policies

JAKARTA (JP): The opening session of the ASEAN Regional Forum yesterday saw Myanmar face its sharpest critics and defend its much-reproached domestic political policies.

Though not designed as a forum for discussing domestic affairs, the meeting was highlighted by Myanmar's Foreign Minister U Ohn Gyaw briefing the attending ministers on the developments in his country.

Indonesian Foreign Minister, and chair of the meeting, Ali Alatas, explained that during an informal dinner on Monday evening, several ministers had "expressed their concern" about the situation in Myanmar while another group had "expressed their views."

It was then agreed that Myanmar would be given the opportunity to address these concerns and views at the ARF meeting.

"So I gave the floor to Myanmar to give an explanation. And this is what the Myanmarese foreign minister did this morning," Alatas told reporters after escorting the ARF participants to pay a courtesy call on President Soeharto.

"I think the proceedings were to the satisfaction of everybody," he said. "Myanmar was given the opportunity to explain the situation and, on the other hand, those who had been critical of Myanmar had the opportunity to listen to the explanations first hand."

Taking part in the meeting were ASEAN's seven foreign ministers: Brunei's Prince Mohamad Bolkiah, Indonesia's Ali Alatas, Malaysia's Abdullah Badawi, the Philippines' Domingo L. Siazon, Singapore's S. Jayakumar, Thailand's Amnuay Viravan and Vietnam's Nguyen Manh Cam.

Also at the meeting were ASEAN's four observers: Cambodia's Ung Huot, Laos' Somsavat Lengsavad, Myanmar's U Ohn Gyaw and Papua New Guinea's Kilroy Genia.

Foreign ministers from the dialog partners were also present: Australia's Alexander Downer, Canada's Lloyd Axworthy, China's Qian Qichen, European Union Vice President Manuel Marin, the EU's Chairman of the Council of Ministers Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring, Indian Foreign Minister I. Kumar Gujral, Japan's Yukihiko Ikeda, New Zealand's Don McKinnon, Russia's Yevgeni Primakov, South Korea's Gong Ro-myung and the United States' Warren Christopher.

India and Myanmar are first-time attendees at the ARF.

After a three-hour morning session, the ministers paid a courtesy call on President Soeharto, dubbed by Singapore's Jayakumar as "the Father of ASEAN", at Merdeka Palace.

Soeharto used the occasion to brief the participants on the history of ASEAN, which developed from five members in 1967 and is now well on the way to encompassing all 10 Southeast Asian countries.

One thing ASEAN is not is a military alliance, although each member has its own armed forces, Soeharto said.

The armed forces should defend their respective nations' sovereignty and maintain national stability, which is crucial to their development, he said.

ASEAN countries who succeed in maintaining their own stability give vital contributions to the regional stability which, in turn, allows for enhanced regional cooperation, he added.

Soeharto said "now is the most conducive time for ASEAN to implement the concept of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality."

At the closing press conference Alatas described the ARF meeting as a useful opportunity for an exchange of views.

When pressed further on the question of Myanmar's membership of ASEAN, Alatas argued that the association has never ignored the domestic situation there. However, the grouping does not agree with the Western approach of "politically putting a country on the spot," he pointed out.

He argued that other international organizations such as the United Nations have never put domestic political requirements as a prerequisite for membership. Thus, "don't ask of ASEAN what other international organizations don't do," he said.

On the Western countries' demands for democracy and human rights, Alatas maintained that Asian countries also have the same objectives. However, each nation should have the right to determine for themselves the type of democracy they will adhere to.

"I think, sorry to say, that is a bit of either intellectual arrogance or intellectual hypocrisy," he said of those who gauged democracy solely by Western standards.

Though the ministers spent 15 minutes of the four-hour meeting listening to explanations on the situation in Myanmar, the issue was not included within the final chairman's statement.

A delegate who asked not to be named revealed that during the informal dinner the previous night, the ministers had agreed that the issue of Myanmar would not be part of the chairman's statement. However in exchange ministers could raise the matter in their opening statements, a session which was open to the public.

Other issues which were discussed included the South China Sea. The ministers welcomed efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the issue of overlapping claims in the area.

The ministers yesterday also adopted reports from the various Inter-Sessional Groups of the ARF on confidence building measures, search and rescue and peacekeeping operations.

On the nuclear issue, the ministers, in their statement expressed concern over nuclear testing in the region. They also welcomed the end of nuclear testing in the South Pacific and urged the successful and speedy conclusion of the negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The ARF yesterday also expressed its support for the elimination of antipersonnel mines.

"Clearly...we are thinking of the land mines that are still found in Cambodia," Alatas said.

The ARF yesterday also adopted criteria for new participants. Ministers stressed that they must be those nations who can directly contribute to peace and stability in the region. They further noted that the ARF must expand gradually at a manageable level. (pwn/mds)

More stories on Page 3

Inconsistency -- Page 4