S’pore PM Lee speaks out on ASEAN, refugees


ASEAN coun­tries can work to­gether, in­flu­ence one an­other, and even en­cour­age oth­ers to tackle se­ri­ous prob­lems, Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong said.

But the group can­not solve all prob­lems, and can­not com­pel any mem­ber to act in a cer­tain way, he said at an in­ter­view with 17 vis­it­ing jour­nal­ists from the nine other ASEAN coun­tries on Thurs­day, when asked about the is­sue of Ro­hingya refugees.

Lee also told them that on­go­ing eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion was help­ing to pro­mote devel­op­ment across Southeast Asia.

But on some is­sues like the refugee cri­sis, he said: “ASEAN is not one coun­try, and it’s not pos­si­ble for ASEAN to say, you do that, and you put a stop to this.”

Coun­tries have to tackle th­ese prob­lems them­selves, he said in re­sponse to a Myan­mar jour­nal­ist who asked him to com­ment on for­eign me­dia crit­i­cism of the group­ing as “tooth­less” over the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

Thou­sands flee­ing per­se­cu­tion and de­pri­va­tion in Myan­mar and Bangladesh were stranded in the Straits of Malacca last month, un­til Malaysia and In- done­sia agreed to ac­cept them tem­po­rar­ily. Hu­man traf­fick­ing camps and mass graves have also been dis­cov­ered in Malaysia and Thai­land.

In his most de­tailed re­marks yet on the lat­est hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, Lee ex­pressed sym­pa­thy for the plight of the Ro­hingya — a term he noted Myan­mar does not use — whose prob­lems are com­plex.

“The living con­di­tions for the peo­ple must be pretty se­vere, oth­er­wise they would not be go­ing to sea and putting them­selves at such dan­ger of life and limb, with their chil­dren and wom­en­folk, and at the mercy of the traf­fick­ers,” he said.

“But th­ese are prob­lems which the coun­tries have to re­solve. We can en­cour­age, we can dis­cuss, but the coun­tries have to tackle th­ese prob­lems and min­i­mize, or at least mit­i­gate, the hard­ships.”

Ear­lier in the ses­sion, held on Thurs­day, a jour­nal­ist from Malaysia’s New Straits Times had also asked him about the refugee is­sue. Lee said the prob­lem had to be dealt with “up­stream, in the source coun­tries.”

But hu­man traf­fick­ers, “en­trenched, well- or­ga­nized groups with an in­ter­est in keep­ing the flow go­ing to ex­tort money,” also

had to be dealt with, he added.

‘No coun­try can take an end­less

num­ber of refugees’

Ex­plain­ing the re­luc­tance of some ASEAN coun­tries to ac­cept the boat­loads of refugees — a stance crit­i­cized by West­ern na­tions — Lee said: “No coun­try can take an end­less num­ber of refugees and say: ‘Well, we just take them on hu­man­i­tar­ian grounds’. Your own peo­ple will not ac­cept it, it’s not pos­si­ble.

“And when they do come, there has to be some way th­ese peo­ple can be dealt with — ei­ther they go back to where they came from or they have to go some­where which can ac­cept them.”

Lee noted that ASEAN will de­clare an ASEAN Com­mu­nity at year-end, but this would not be the end of re­gional in­te­gra­tion, as the gap in devel­op­ment be­tween older and newer mem­bers can be fur­ther nar­rowed.

There was also more work for the group­ing in ar­eas like the South China Sea, where ASEAN is in the process of ne­go­ti­at­ing a Code of Con­duct with China to bet­ter man­age dis­putes in the wa­ters where four ASEAN na­tions are claim­ing ter­ri­to­ries that China has also lay claim to.

Lee said there was a com­mon ASEAN view on the mat­ter, but in terms of nu­ance, dif­fer­ent coun­tries have dif­fer­ent po­si­tions.

Sin­ga­pore’s po­si­tion is that it is in no po­si­tion to judge the mer­its of the var­i­ous claims; it de­sires only to see the dis­putes man­aged peace­fully and in ac­cor­dance with in­ter­na­tional law.

He was also asked about Ti­mor Leste’s membership of ASEAN. Lee said the group­ing was care­fully study­ing its ap­pli­ca­tion, and do­ing “quite a lot” to help Ti­mor Leste get ready to join ASEAN.

“They are par­tic­i­pat­ing in some of the ASEAN ac­tiv­i­ties in or­der to un­der­stand them, and ASEAN is help­ing them de­velop their ca­pa­bil­i­ties in a wide range of ways,” he added.

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