The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Manila Stands Firm on Burma
By ALBERTO G. ROMULO Friday, April 29, 2005

Foreign Secretary Romulo Says Philippines Position “Very Clear”


Alberto G. RomuloPolitical disquiet within Southeast Asia about Burma’s assumption of the chairmanship of Asean at the end of 2006 is particularly strong in the Philippines. But where does the Manila government stand on the issue? The Irrawaddy interviewed Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto G. Romulo on this issue, and others now occupying his government…


Question: Singapore’s foreign minister George Yeo and the President of the Philippine Senate, Franklin Drilon, are among those opposed to Burma taking over the chairmanship of Asean at the end of 2006. What is the policy position of the Philippines on the issue?


Answer: The Philippines’ position has been very clear, repeated by President Arroyo in various Asean forums...Hanoi, Vientiane, Jakarta [and during] the visit of Burma’s Prime Minister  Soe Win  [to the Philippines] last month. We believe the roadmap to democracy should be followed. We urge that in that roadmap to democracy,  Aung San Suu Kyi be released and that the NLD [take part in] the all-inclusive party convention. We have urged them to consider the request of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for his special envoy Ismael Razali to be received and invited in Myanmar. So these are points that we have been stressing. I hope before the Asean Foreign Ministers meeting in Vientiane, the roadmap is complied with because that is the call of the foreign ministers who attended the Asean foreign ministers retreat in Cebu.


Q: Is there a timetable set by the foreign ministers in Cebu for action by Burma’s government?


A: April, May, June… it’s not long enough but we should have some answers [from Burma by that time].


Q: How do you see Asean’s central policy of strict non-interference in each other’s affairs affecting Burma’s chairmanship next year? Do you think this is still helpful even if events in one member state are viewed with alarm by others?


A: I don’t think that should be the case. Asean works through consensus, and to arrive at a consensus there is always a discussion.


Q: Press reports in Thailand and in the region suggest that the Philippines should take over Asean chairmanship from Burma in 2006. Some newspapers have said that Burmese Prime Minister Soe Win, who was in Manila last month, tried to lobby Philippine President Gloria Arroyo not to take up an invitation from Asean, if it comes, to host the meeting next year. Is this true?


A: No. We have not mentioned that at all. As you know, in Asean the rotation of the chairmanship is alphabetical. Prime Minister Soe Win never mentioned it during his visit [to Manila].


Q: If an invitation comes, do you think the Philippine government is willing to take up the chairmanship instead of Burma in 2006?


A: You cannot plan a marriage until the girl has said yes; we don’t want to speculate.


Q: How do you think the Philippines, one of the countries  in Southeast Asia which enjoys democracy, can work within Asean to make Burma more accountable and democratic?


A: In Asean, we do not just talk among ourselves, or the nine  Asean foreign ministers, but we talk with Myanmar (Burma) and I’m very hopeful things will come this way so that we should be able to finally achieve that dream of having that roadmap to democracy. So let’s wait until after the Asean retreat, whether there is a consensus or we are near a consensus.


Q: Why not have a timetable for Burma to comply with the roadmap?


A: I think it’s a good point to have a timetable to be set.


Q: Some Asean parliamentarians have suggested Burma should be expelled from Asean unless there is political development there. What is your view on this proposal?


A: We work through a consensus. That’s why Myanmar’s foreign minister said he will bring up this to his leaders.


Q: Where does Asean’s credibility stand at this moment, when Burma’s controversial membership has been causing disunity within the organization and inviting criticism from the international community?


A: The concerns are clear. We told Myanmar’s foreign minister about the resolution adopted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union during the members’ meeting in Manila recently, and about the concerns of the United Nations, led by Secretary General Kofi Annan, also parliamentarians in the Philippines as well as the US House of Representatives and the mounting pressure by the international community.


Q: On the domestic front, how serious is the Philippines’ problem with its various Muslim insurgencies in the South now, and is the assistance, some of it military, given by the United States helping to combat it?


A: US President Bush designated the Philippines as a “Major Non-NATO Ally” (MNNA). He assured President Arroyo that the US will continue to support the Philippines in its counter-terrorism efforts through various means. These include security assistance, training, equipment, law enforcement, modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Balikatan 03-1, the peace process between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government, and civic action projects in conflict areas. A number of security related accords were also signed between the Philippines and the United States that seek to combat terrorism. The Philippines is also a recipient of huge military aid from the US that include a US $30 million grant aid for counter-terrorism and training of AFP, US $30 million development assistance to conflict areas,  US $25 million for humanitarian projects in conflict areas  as well as US $47 million for support of Balikatan exercises.


Q: The US charges d’affaires in Manila, Joseph Mussomelli, in an interview with SBS-TV Australia, has raised concern that the Philippines may be the ‘next Afghanistan,’ citing the broader links between the MILF insurgents and terrorist groups Jemaa Islamiah and Abu Sayyaf that are connected to Al Qaeda?


A: The statements of that US official are grossly inaccurate, unfair and prejudicial and counterproductive to the overall efforts of the Philippine government to fight terrorism and to bring peace to Mindanao. His comments are not to be expected from a representative of a close and friendly government and strategic ally. We have expressed our dismay [about] his statements in a ‘note verbale’ sent to the US embassy in Manila. President Arroyo herself has declared the matter a closed book. Let us all move on.


Q: Is there much collaboration with majority Muslim Asean neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia in this regard? The Philippines signed a trilateral agreement on counter-terrorism with Malaysia and Indonesia in May 2002. This agreement strengthens the military and the police of the three countries in the exchange of information on terrorist suspects and terrorist cells.


A: Do the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, occupied by various competing regional countries, including the Philippines and China, still pose a problem in bilateral relations with China, given the fact there have been occasional military clashes between the two over the Spratlys? The Philippines is seriously working with China and other claimant states—Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam—together with our Asean partners to see the full implementation of the Asean-China Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that was signed in 2002. The code is a framework of trust and confidence, of dialogue and cooperation, as well as peaceful options for the South China Sea.


Q: What is the state of peace negotiations in the Netherlands with representatives of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and its military arm, the New People’s Army?


A: The peace talks with the communist groups have remained at a standstill since August 2004 after the rebel group announced a unilateral postponement of the negotiations in the light of the inclusion of the CPP/NPA and leftist leader Jose Maria Sison in the international terrorist listing. The delisting of their group as foreign terrorists is a sovereign decision of the respective European governments and it’s up to them to decide on the matter. The Philippine government meanwhile appreciates Norway’s commitment to pursue its role as a third country facilitator in the peace talks between the government and the rebel groups.

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