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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nov 20, 2007
Myanmar says no, so Gambari briefing for Asean called off
By Carolyn Hong & Cheong Suk Wai
ASEAN leaders last night called off abruptly a planned summit briefing by United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari after Myanmar objected to it.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in Singapore's capacity as Asean chair, disclosed the cancellation at a late night press conference, after a long working dinner with his Asean counterparts.

The session, where the Myanmar situation was discussed, dragged on beyond 11.30pm.

Flanked by eight other Asean leaders, with the noticeable absence of Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein, Mr Lee said Myanmar has made clear that it prefers to deal directly with the UN, and Asean leaders respect its wishes.

PM Thein, said Mr Lee, had told Asean leaders that Professor Gambari 'should report only to UN Security Council and not to Asean or the East Asia Summit. Myanmar had every confidence in managing Prof Gambari's mission and the good offices of the UN'.

'In view of Myanmar's position, Prof Gambari will not brief Asean or the EA Summit leaders,' Mr Lee said.
He added that Singapore, as Asean chair, will facilitate Prof Gambari's meetings with interested parties. The UN envoy is en route to Singapore from New York.

'The Asean leaders agree that Asean will respect Myanmar's wishes and make way for Myanmar to deal directly with the UN and the international community on its own.

'Asean stands ready to play a role whenever Myanmar wants it to do so,' said Mr Lee.

The cancellation of the briefing came after a day of wrangling that came to light early when Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda told reporters the briefing should be limited to Asean leaders.

Singapore had invited Prof Gambari to meet Asean leaders and their counterparts from China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand at the East Asia Summit tomorrow.

He was to brief them on his two missions to Myanmar since the junta's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Later in the day, it became evident that a number of other countries, including Malaysia and Thailand, also did not agree to the briefing being open to non-Asean partners. However, both countries had left it to Singapore, as chairman, to decide.

This issue dragged on throughout the day, as more news leaked out about the wrangling taking place behind the scenes, right up to the working dinner meeting at the Shangri-La Hotel's Waterfall Terrace

Amidst this, a bright spark came in the form of the formal presentation of the Asean Charter to the foreign ministers of the group yesterday morning. The ministers accepted and endorsed the document without amendment.

The journey to transform Asean into a more streamlined, rules-based organisation began nearly two years ago, when an Eminent Persons' Group was appointed to outline a vision.

Their vision was later crafted by officials into the Charter that will be signed by Asean's heads of government today.

Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win yesterday confirmed his country will sign the charter, even though it contains a provision to set up a human rights body.

'We agree with the Charter... We will sign, sure,' he told reporters.

But the Philippines warned yesterday it was unlikely to ratify the Charter unless Myanmar restores democracy and frees opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar's presence at the summit sparked small anti-junta protests yesterday when nine students in red shirts walked up Orchard Road in small groups of three to skirt protest laws.

'We wanted to do something in some small way to show the world hasn't forgotten,' said 22-year-old British National University of Singapore student Pia Muzaffar.

The students were turned back when they approached the summit venue, and dispersed peacefully.

Responding to reporters' questions last night, Mr Lee pointed out that while the Myanmar issue is dominating the headlines, he considers the Asean Charter and the Asean economic community to be launched today to be critical 'strategic moves which are going to have long term implications on Asean'.

'These are moves which will set the direction for all Asean countries to move forward to a more cohesive and systematic and rule-based organisation,' he added.

carolynh@sph.com.sg

suk@sph.com.sg

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