Former secretary-general of Asean Ong Keng Yong recalls 2007 drama

Veteran diplomat Ong Keng Yong says that in a crisis, the chairman's role is critical. "He cajoles, he gets people to agree to a single position," he says.
Veteran diplomat Ong Keng Yong says that in a crisis, the chairman's role is critical. "He cajoles, he gets people to agree to a single position," he says. ST PHOTO: EDWARD TEO

Veteran diplomat Ong Keng Yong has seen his fair share of dramatic moments at Asean's family get-togethers, and knows how swiftly Asean's chairmen have to scramble when other members suddenly put their foot down on sensitive issues.

As Asean's secretary-general from 2003 to 2007, he saw first-hand the drama that ensued when Myanmar objected at the 11th hour to a briefing by United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari.

As the 2007 chairman - the role rotates annually, based on the alphabetical order of the English names of member states - Singapore had invited Professor Gambari to the Asean Summit in November that year to brief Asean's leaders on Myanmar's progress towards national reconciliation.

Myanmar was then under strong Western pressure after the army's crackdown on protesters and the special envoy had met Myanmar's military government .

"The mistake Singapore made was that we did not have it in black and white that the Myanmar delegation would not object to the presence of Gambari," said Mr Ong.

"We did tell Myanmar but their response was ambivalent. And all this was done through diplomatic discourse, not in black and white."

When dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel was over, the Asean leaders pulled out their files to discuss the agenda for the East Asian Summit the following day.

That was when the Myanmar delegation said they did not agree to Prof Gambari coming to deliver his briefing and that Asean's leaders should not listen to him.

"The whole thing was quite severe... There was actually a small crisis," said Mr Ong.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who hosted the dinner, said it was not unreasonable for Prof Gambari to be giving a briefing. As the special representative of the UN secretary-general, he had travelled around the region, been entertained by each Asean country and even met officials in Myanmar.

"But the then Prime Minister of Myanmar (Thein Sein) said no, this is something that we cannot agree to. If you insist on having him give us a briefing or be present, we will have to inform our leader (Than Shwe at the time). It was a real threat that they would walk out," said Mr Ong.

"The other Asean leaders at that dinner were all quite united in not letting Myanmar walk away. At the same time, they were not prepared to let Myanmar get away with this."

The leaders also wanted to be seen by the world to have allowed Prof Gambari to pursue a course of action mandated by then Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan.

"They all huddled together and reworked the Asean position," said Mr Ong, referring to the statement put out by the Asean chairman.

"I could see, PM Lee together with former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and then Prime Minister of Malaysia Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, working to form that one paragraph which would satisfy Myanmar," he added.

In the end, the statement said Asean would respect Myanmar's wishes and make way for it to deal directly with the UN and the international community on its own, but the grouping was ready to play a role whenever Myanmar wanted it to do so.

Asean was heavily criticised for bowing to Myanmar's demands.

But the situation was somewhat salvaged as Prof Gambari briefed the leaders individually on the Myanmar situation the next day.

In such a situation, the chairman's role is critical, said Mr Ong. "He cajoles, he gets people to agree to a single position. Even when they cannot agree, the chairman will have to cobble together a nice statement to fudge the situation and say that although we have no consensus, generally we agree this is the other course we should pursue."

He added: "The chairman is expected to come up with some suggestion to resolve the crisis, to at least move things along without any loss of face to anybody."

This time around, the Asean Secretary-General is Brunei diplomat Lim Jock Hoi. With Singapore in the hot seat as chairman, its leaders and officials may have to once again find solutions on the fly if situations like this arise.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 14, 2018, with the headline Former secretary-general of Asean Ong Keng Yong recalls 2007 drama. Subscribe