Former Foreign Minister of Singapore George Yeo has said if Bangladesh wants closer cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as becoming a sectoral dialogue partner, it has to view the Rohingya issue from the regional bloc's point of view also - in which Myanmar is a full member.

"You need to incorporate the view of ASEAN, not dismissing the importance of the Rohingya issue but also not allowing it to become such a dominating issue," he said addressing a discussion here in the city.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the discussion as part of its Distinguished Speaker Series, titled "Bangladesh and ASEAN in a Multipolar World" at Hotel Renaissance in the city's Gulshan area.

George Yeo said now Bangladesh wants to be a sectoral dialogue partner of the ASEAN, with one issue dominating the agenda.

Otherwise, Yeo, who held multiple cabinet positions besides the foreign minister's in his distinguished career, feels promoting Bangladesh as a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN can be done "without too much difficulty, if you put in the diplomatic footwork."

Terming the Rohingya crisis a human tragedy, the former Singaporean foreign minister in his keynote address said, "There is no simple solution. Because the problems are rooted in history and the solutions could be rooted in history."

Responding to a question, he said ASEAN didn't condemn the Rohingya genocide when it happened as it considers it an internal political problem. "ASEAN has tried to separate the humanitarian issue in Rakhine estate from a political issue," he said, adding that ASEAN doesn't interfere in the affairs of its member countries.

Among the ASEAN members, the Muslim countries Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, also Singapore are sympathetic towards the Rohingya people. Others don't have the same view. Laos has shared traditional relations with Myanmar, he said.

In Myanmar, the Rohingya is a side issue but in Bangladesh it is a central issue, he continued.

Focusing on the development of Bangladesh, George Yeo highly praised the recent progress of the country in different economic and social indexes.

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Cosmos Foundation President, scholar-diplomat, and former Foreign Affairs Advisor of Bangladesh Caretaker Government chaired and conducted the discussion, while Enayetullah Khan, Chairman of the Cosmos Foundation, delivered the welcoming remarks.

Dr Chowdhury said the discussion on ASEAN and Bangladesh is a timely one and the deliberations at this time are apt for two broad reasons.

Raising the first reason, he said, "Bangladesh, in the midst of a graduation process from the list of LDCs, would be looking to rewarding relationships with friendly multilateral economic associations of which ASEAN is a key one."

The scholar-diplomat said they, in particular, see the ASEAN Economic Community ambition as commendable. "It envisions the concept of the region as a single market and production base, which will render the region competitive, with equitable economic development and fully integrated into the global economy," he added.

He said the Masterplan on ASEAN Connectivity is also a laudable goal. "No surprise, therefore, in our inclination to wanting to be a Regional Dialogue Partner and seeking the support of all friendly countries including Singapore," he went on.

Dr Chowdhury said the second reason is the burgeoning turmoil in Myanmar, an ASEAN member, which is now threatening to spill into Bangladesh as well, with protagonists from contending sides looking to Bangladesh as a safe haven.

"We understand the ASEAN principle of non-interference in another member-state's affairs. We also note, however, it contributes to the failure to rein in the junta leadership, and the ineffectiveness of the Five-point Consensus. Very applicable to the junta is that dire dictum of Tacitus: 'They create a desolation and call it peace,'" he said.

Citing that ASEAN is a political institution, he said there is a huge risk that its inability to resolve the Myanmar crisis will take a toll, not only on its credibility, but on its unity.

Enayetullah Khan, also Editor-in-Chief, United News of Bangladesh (UNB), in his welcoming remarks expressed deep gratitude to George Yeo despite his pressing schedule.

He said a highly successful career in public life for Yeo saw him as a Cabinet Minister for 23 years, including as Foreign Minister between 2004 and 2011.

Talking about Bangladesh-Singapore relations, he said, "We are happy that our leaders Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have such a close rapport! We are looking forward to the day that rapport can be translated into a mutually rewarding free trade agreement."

Noting that his own experience of Singapore has been most exciting, the Chairman of the Cosmos Foundation said he has sought to put them together in a book titled 'Bangladesh and Singapore: A tale of two nations' that he hopes to launch simultaneously in Singapore and Dhaka in the near future.

Former ambassador Farooq Sobhan, former Principal Secretary Md Nojibur Rahman, former Foreign Secretary Touhid Hossain, Secretary at Foreign Ministry Shabbir Ahmad Chowdhury, Dhaka University Professor Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir and Cosmos Group Deputy Managing Director Masud Khan, among others, took part in the discussion during the question-answer session.

The programme was emceed by Catherine Gardner, creative director of the Cosmos Foundation.

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