By Linda Khoo
BANGKOK, June 25 (Bernama) — It was a “marathon” of meetings for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the oldest statesman in ASEAN and also in the world during his working visit to Bangkok, Thailand in conjunction with the 34th ASEAN Summit last weekend, which ended on a positive note.
Leading the Malaysian delegation, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir, who will turn 94 in July and was one of the earliest ASEAN leaders to arrive in Bangkok last Thursday for the 34th ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings, said he had fruitful meetings during the four-day working visit to the kingdom.
While he had back-to back dialogues and meetings during the working visit, he was happy as ‘quite a lot of things’ were achieved at this edition of the ASEAN Summit.
Sunday started with the 34th ASEAN Summit opening ceremony and ASEAN Summit retreat followed by the 13th Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) and 12th Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT).
On the same day, Dr Mahathir had bilateral trade meeting with his counterpart General Prayuth Chan o-cha to further strengthen bilateral ties between the two neighbors as well as the peace process in southern Thailand.
The prime minister and nine other heads of government and heads of state attended the ASEAN Summit Plenary session as well as interfaces with representatives of ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), ASEAN Youth and ASEAN Business Advisory Council (Asean-BAC) and a roundtable meeting with Thailand’s captains of industry on Saturday.
Trade and growing economies as well as greater cooperation among the member countries were among the top agenda at the summit in the midst of a trade war between the world’s two largest economies – China and the United States.
The no-nonsense politician raised few issues during the summit which included boosting intra ASEAN trade volume which is relatively small now.
The 10 ASEAN countries had a growing population of about 650 million, and the market was huge and its potential was enormous, he said.
He said the ASEAN market that formed about 25 per cent of overall trade was comparable to other groups like the European Union and North American Union where trade amounted between 45 and 50 percent.
Dr Mahathir said it was high time ASEAN members made special efforts including streamlining procedures, processes and laws to boost intra ASEAN trade and identify goods and products that can be produced within the region for ASEAN-produced products to reduce imports from outside the region.
The visionary leader proposed the introduction of an e-commerce tax in Asean as the online businesses had ‘swallowed’ conventional businesses and reduced tax revenues in the member countries.
During the summit, Malaysia and other ASEAN member countries also reiterated their strong commitment to concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations this year to reinvigorate international trade and to maintain ASEAN credibility and centrality.
The Chairman’s statement of the 34th ASEAN Summit called for relevant ASEAN partners to prioritise the RCEP negotiations and to work with ASEAN to conclude the RCEP negotiations within this year.
Dr Mahathir said he was optimistic that the RCEP would be concluded and Malaysia was willing to conclude the RCEP without India “for the time being”.
RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement between 10 ASEAN member countries and six Asia Pacific nations, namely Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. The bloc have missed the target to sign RCEP quite a number of times however, the just concluded ASEAN summit saw all member countries being committed to conclude it by year-end.
Rohingya crisis is one of the issues raised during the summit. Malaysia and Indonesia were among the few members of ASEAN to speak up for the minority.
The presence of Dr Mahathir in the Asean summit also grabbed attention from the local and foreign media especially when he had to stand next to Myanmar’s leader Aung San Syu Kyi during the traditional Asean handshake of the leaders as both leaders are not in the same page on Rohingya crisis.
When asked whether he raised the matter with Suu Kyi, Dr Mahathir did not comment if he had any personal conversation with the leader. In jest, he replied “she sat next to me, according to the alphabetical order. She also sat next to me at the dining table.”
At the summit, Dr Mahathir also raised concern about the safety of the refugees to return to Myanmar as most of them feared that they would be tortured and imprisoned. He urged the international monitoring bodies to ensure the Rohingya refugees’ safety.
Meanwhile, the ASEAN Chairman’s statement said all leaders expressed continued support for Myanmar’s commitment to ensure safety and security for all communities in the Rakhine State as effectively as possible and facilitate the voluntary return of displaced persons in a safe, secure and dignified manner.
It said the leaders were looking forward to the full implementation of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Myanmar, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and effective dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh to facilitate the repatriation process of displaced persons from Rakhine State.
“We stressed the need to find a comprehensive and durable solution to address the root causes of the conflict and to create a conducive environment so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives,” said the statement.
Themed “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability”, the summit discussed various initiatives to realize the dreams set to benefit the people of ASEAN.
The 34th ASEAN Summit ended with its World Cup dreams when Prayuth said ASEAN would launch a joint bid to host the biggest sporting event on earth – FIFA World Cup in 2034, a first for the region.
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- Dr Mahathir suggests ASEAN countries introduce taxes on online businesses
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