Monday, March 2, 2009

Summit Happened—But We Don’t Know What

“I smell sound bites,” he mumbled, “but no news.”
The press pack awaits another sound bite.
(Photo: The Irrawaddy)

By DAVID PAQUETTE - The Irrawaddy News


By Saturday afternoon, any expectations we had of Burma issues being addressed at the Asean Summit went out the window.

Myriad versions of the old politician’s maxim, “We’re keeping the process moving forward,” consumed every press conference and photo-op. Discussions were frequently said to have been “candid and open,” and “conducted in a spirit of cooperation and consultation.”

In a single 10-minute statement to the press, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva managed to squeeze in “advancing,” “pushing ahead,” “reaching further,” step by step,” “shoring up confidence,” “restoration of confidence,” “pushing ahead” and “stepping towards building a framework” with seamless ease.

Rather than running back to the media center to file their stories post-haste, journalists milled around after each press conference, scratching their heads, exchanging pained looks with their colleagues and staring blankly at their notes.

The message we were being asked to relay back to the public was clear—this Asean summit was more than just a schmooze fest with nice wine and a chance for the wives to compare evening gowns. There was some serious progress going on behind the scenes.

Asean General-Secretary Surin Pitsuwan was positively buoyant. “You just have to trust us,” he seemed to be saying, suppressing a wink. Even if reporters’ questions weren’t being addressed, he hinted, you could be sure the delegates were addressing the issues. (JEG's: which issues were those???)

But you had to hand to it the assembled press. Whatever the subject, be it bilateral talks with Brunei or the signing of an agreement to allow Southeast Asian dentists to, I don’t know, perform root-canal surgery across the region, I guess—ultimately the press conference came back to the Rohingya issue.

Speaking in a rather adorable Essex accent, the Thai premier managed to smile, skip and sidestep all questions on the Rohingya issue at three successive press conferences, finally prompting one gritty reporter from the Bangkok Post to ask: “Is ‘Rohingya’ a taboo word at this conference?”

“Not at awwll,” replied the premier in his David Beckham lilt and then proved it by employing the word in every sentence thereafter—a departure from the semantic stumbling block that had beleaguered delegates for days, with the Burmese government apparently only willing to accept terminology such as “Bengalis” or “Illegal Migrants in the Indian Ocean.”

Not that we had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Gen Thein Sein or others from the Burmese delegation. By keeping the 1,200 registered members of the press penned up at the Sheraton while the Asean delegates had the run of the Dusit some two kilometers down the beach, the Thai authorities ensured that the delegates could avoid nosy journalists while their
spouses had the pool to themselves.

Some 5,700 extra police had been pulled into Cha-am for the summit and reporters had to be shuttled back and forth through security checkpoints into the Dusit grounds in CNG minivans. Several times a day the highway that was the artery linking us to the summit was blocked, such as when members of the Thai royal family came and went or when one of the delegates passed through town.

Ten kilometers away in Hua Hin, elderly Scandinavian tourists stood under trees on the sidewalk in the scorching sun, unable to cross the road to get to the beach while traffic was halted for an hour at a time.

On Saturday morning, a protest against the Burmese government gathered just 15 activists on bicycles, surrounded by dozens of policemen, onlookers and reporters. For lack of juicy news from the summit—and with not a red-shirt in sight—the Bangkok dailies ran the protest on their front pages. (good idea...)

Back at the summit, a Thai government spokesman told the assembled press that the 10 Asean heads of state had met a delegation of civil society representatives for the first time in Asean’s 41-year history. Whether this was supposed to be a landmark coming-together of politicians and activists, or a photo-op for the new and improved “people-oriented” Asean, the meeting failed to cast anything other than a shadow over the summit, even before it began.

First, the Burmese and Cambodian delegates threatened to boycott the meeting because they didn’t like the NGOs that were attending. They succeeded in having two of the civil society representatives—including Burma’s Khin Ohmar—banned from the meeting. Then they asked the NGO leaders to take their shoes off before entering the meeting, in fear that they might toss their sandals at a head of state. The request was revoked, but not before it caused ripples of laughter from the press corps back at Base Sheraton.

We held out for something—a breakthrough. While business matters surrounding the global financial crisis appeared to have been dealt with neatly and swiftly in Bangkok the weekend before, you couldn’t help but get the impression that the Asean leaders were resting on their laurels and that slippery matters such as the human rights body, stateless refugees dying at sea and political prisoners in Burma could all wait for another day.

In the end, we had to settle for acting as stenographers for the Asean ministers’ press releases. I had visions of news headlines around the world blurting out: “Asean Ministers Conduct Candid Talks in a Spirit of Cooperation and Consultation.”

One veteran reporter on Burma, who had arrived late, summed it up with one slow 360-degree scan of the press room. “I smell sound bites,” he mumbled, “but no news.”

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