Bangkok - Asean’s ties with the United States will be undermined if Myanmar is allowed to take over the group’s chairmanship next year, said US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. He was in the Thai capital as part of his 10-day trip to South-east Asia.
While in Bangkok, Mr Zoellick held talks with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon to discuss US views about the pace of reforms in Myanmar.
At a joint press conference with Mr Kantathi on May 4, Mr Zoellick said Washington welcomed efforts by Myanmar’s neighbours to persuade its military leaders to institute political reforms.
“I did express our concern about how it would hinder our dealings with Asean if Myanmar were the chair, but I recognise that's a decision for the Asean countries to take.
"Myanmar’s role puts severe limitations on what the US can do, so I can’t go beyond that at this point. We’ll see what Asean can do,” he said.
Mr Zoellick declined to say if the US would boycott Asean meeting were Myanmar to take the chair. Washington had said in the past that it might boycott Asean meetings in Yangon unless the military junta mend its ways.
“Now it’s a real question of whether others can continue to try to press the regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi, move towards a serious process of democratic reconciliation,” said Mr Zoellick.
The Myanmar issue has put the 10-member grouping in a bind. Asean knows its international standing would be affected by having one of Southeast Asia’s most-loathed governments occupy the prestigious chair. At the same time, Asean doesn’t want to bee seen as violating its much-cherished policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs by depriving Myanmarof the chairmanship.
At the press conference, Mr Kantathi suggested that Myanmar itself might decline the chairmanship to save Asean from any embarrassment.
“It’s a possibility, one of the possibilities they are thinking of,” he said. Mr Kantathi hinted that one possible solution would be for Myanmar to become Asean chairman but for Thailand to host all the big diplomatic meetings.
“What we are working on with them of course would be a dual track situation,” said Mr Kantathi.
The Thai government has strong commercial ties with Yangon’s reclusive generals and has favoured “constructive engagement rather than sanctions.
* US-Asean ties at risk because of Myanmar (The Straits Times, May 5)