Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Listening to Asia

Mr Eric G John, United States’ ambassador to Thailand

APRIL, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.2
The Irrawaddy News

In a wide-ranging interview with The Irrawaddy, the United States’ ambassador to Thailand, Eric G John, spoke about what Asia—and the countries of Asean in particular—can expect from the foreign policy program of Barack Obama’s presidency

Question: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first official visit was to Asia. It was seen by many as a sign that President Obama wants to focus much of his foreign policy on this region. What can the US do to improve its relations with Asia, particularly Asean?

Answer: We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Asean, one that spans more than 30 years. I understand the perception recently may be that we have not paid enough attention to Asia or Asean, but a closer look will reveal that we have always been engaged with this region. During the last administration, we established the US-Asean Enhanced Partnership, and we have taken definitive steps to improve bilateral cooperation with many Asean members in recent years.

Having said that, the Obama administration has sent a clear signal of its intention to make relations with Asia an even greater priority [with Clinton’s visit]. As Secretary Clinton announced in Jakarta, President Obama and his administration will soon launch a formal interagency process to pursue accession to Asean’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. This is a major step forward in our relationship with Asean. [Clinton] also told Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan that she plans to travel to Thailand in July to participate in the Asean Post-Ministerial and Asean Regional Forum.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel, the US ambassador for Asean Affairs—the first such ambassador appointed among Asean’s 10 dialogue partners—represented Washington at the Asean Summit in Cha-am, Thailand. The participation of these high-level US government officials in these critical regional fora certainly reflects the importance we place on our relationship with Asean.

Looking forward, there will be many opportunities for the US and Asean to work together. The economic development and well-being of all Asean nations is of great importance to the US and increasing trade with Asean will be a key objective for the new Obama administration. The US provides a huge market for Asean’s exports. In 2007, we purchased US $111 billion in Asean goods. US private sector investment in Asean exceeds $130 billion, more than in China, Japan or India. In turn, the United States each year exports more than $60 billion in goods to Asean, our fourth largest market.

In addition to trade, the US will also look to partner with Asean to make progress on climate change, counterterrorism, disease control, the situation in Burma, disaster relief and many other issues of importance to the region.

Q: Secretary Clinton recently outlined a foreign policy based on the “Three Ds” of defense, diplomacy and development. Where does the fourth “D”—democracy—fit into the Obama administration’s foreign policy?

A: It is important to recognize that it is still quite early in the Obama administration and not all policy initiatives have been cemented into concrete plans of action. Defense, diplomacy and development—the “Three Ds” as Secretary Clinton framed them—will indeed be the pillars of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but I contend that all three of the components are intrinsically tied to democracy promotion and that this theme will remain central to the new administration’s foreign policy agenda. In other words, democracy is inherent in all three pillars.

Q: On Burma, Secretary Clinton has said that both engagement and sanctions have failed and that the new administration is considering a shift in its Burma policy. Does this mean that the US will start to engage with the Burmese junta? What other options does the administration have?

A: As Secretary Clinton stated while on her tour of Asia, the US administration is currently reviewing its policy towards Burma. In her words, “We want to see the best ideas about how to influence the Burmese regime.” The end policy goal remains the same: the start of a genuine, inclusive political dialogue in Burma and the release of all political prisoners.

As you have pointed out, Secretary Clinton noted that neither sanctions nor efforts to reach out and engage the regime have proven successful in influencing the authorities in Burma toward this end, which has been endorsed by the UN Security Council and Asean foreign ministers. Moving forward, the US intends to consult with a broad range of stakeholders as we conduct our review of US policy on Burma to ensure that it is a collaborative process based on the vital exchange of information with key actors and friends in the region.

Although we welcome the recent release of some political prisoners by the Burmese government, I note that the regime continues to hold more than 2,100 prisoners of conscience. We will continue to call on the government of Burma to immediately set free all remaining political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi and other high-ranking members of the country’s democracy movement, so that an inclusive dialogue can begin on Burma’s political future.

Q: Are you concerned about the stability of Thailand’s democracy? Do you feel the political situation here has had an adverse impact on the region?

A: No nation’s path to democracy is smooth or straight. Along the way, there are bound to be stumbles. You need only look at the history of my country to see that. It is true that democracy in Thailand has suffered several setbacks in recent years, but I think we must look beyond these past events and consider the democratic tradition that has long been a part of the Thai political landscape. Democratic values are deeply rooted in Thailand and what we have witnessed during this recent period of tension are political disagreements resolved within a constitutional framework. We must recognize that key pillars of democratic societies—freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom to assemble—remained intact through these turbulent times.

Q: The alleged mistreatment of Rohingya boat people by the Thai navy has hurt Thailand’s reputation and has become a serious concern in other countries in the region. What practical solutions to this problem would you like to see?

A: Assisting refugees is one of the top strategic priorities of the US mission in Thailand and one to which I am fully committed.

We must recognize that the root of the problem lies in the situation in Burma. The Rohingya are systematically persecuted for their religion and ethnicity by the Burmese regime, which does not recognize them as citizens despite their centuries-long presence within the modern-day boundaries of Burma.
They are fleeing a situation of severe persecution, which includes strict limits on their ability to find livelihoods in their own villages, in order to seek opportunities in other countries to feed themselves and their families.

Without improvements in their treatment in northern Rakhine [Arakan] State, and verifiable guarantees by authorities that they won’t be punished for departing, the US strictly opposes the forced repatriation of the Rohingya into the hands of Burmese officials. We welcome efforts by concerned governments, particularly those in the Asean region, to work together on a common regional approach for the Rohingya. We are encouraged by reports that the governments of Thailand and Indonesia discussed the issue of Rohingya refugees at the Asean Summit in February, as well as plans to address a regional approach at the Bali Process forum [in April]. We support efforts by Asean nations to develop viable solutions that will ensure that the rights of these individuals are protected and look forward to seeing what concrete plans of action come out of the sideline meetings held recently at the Asean Summit.

Q: Asean now has a charter. Do you see any new ways to strengthen human rights protection?

A: The protection of fundamental human rights was a cornerstone in the establishment of the US over 200 years ago. Since then, a central goal of US foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Asean has taken the steps to fulfill this commitment, but its success will depend on the hard work and resolve of its member nations to act against those who stand in violation of human rights. As a longtime friend of Asean, the US stands ready to assist in helping Asean live up to its commitments.

The Obama administration has pledged to reach beyond ministerial buildings and official meeting halls, as important as those are, to engage the public and civil society to strengthen the foundations needed to support human rights, including good governance, religious tolerance, free elections and a free press.

And we are ready to listen, too. President Obama and Secretary Clinton recognize that actively listening to our partners can also be a source of ideas to fuel our common efforts. The US is committed to a foreign policy that values what others have to say.

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