It is an Asean homecoming for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the summit hosted by Singapore this week.
The last time he attended an Asean Summit was in Bali 15 years ago where then Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri gave a tearful farewell speech.
This week at the 33rd Asean summit, all eyes will be on the Prime Minister again as he sits down next to another female leader who he has been critical of in recent weeks.
And because of Asean’s way of doing things, the seating arrangement will be done in alphabetical order – which means Dr Mahathir will be seated next to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
In his address at the United Nations General Assembly (Unga) in September, Dr Mahathir blamed Myanmar authorities, including a Nobel Peace Laureate, for closing their eyes to the fate of Muslims in Rakhine state who were being murdered and forced to flee their homes.
In an interview conducted the same week in New York, the Prime Minister made it clear that Malaysia would no longer lend its support to Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rohingya.
He remarked that Suu Kyi seemed to be a “changed person” and he had lost faith in her.
For years, it was taboo for Asean leaders to even mention the word “Rohingya” during their meeting, skirting the issue by using words like Muslims and Rakhine state, bearing in mind Asean’s non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country.
But the situation became worse, and it is understood that Malaysia started raising the matter during the leaders’ retreat as recent as three years ago.
“The leaders’ retreat is where they can raise any issue but it will be unrecorded. But when we saw no serious efforts from Myanmar, Malaysia started using ‘Rohingya’ at official meetings,” said an official familiar with the issue.
“Obviously, Myanmar didn’t like it. It was an affront to them. We all know this is beyond the red line for them but we did it,” he added.
And Suu Kyi, who has been attending these summits, showed her displeasure.
“You could tell from the body language and all that. She did not like it,” said an official.
At the Asean summit, the 10 leaders would normally pose for a group photo holding hands and giving their best smiles to the international media.
Even former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak felt uncomfortable, telling his officers it was awkward.
So how would Suu Kyi handle someone who has lost faith in her? Would she care enough to find time and explain to a leader who once fought hard for Myanmar to be a part of Asean despite the world condemnation against the military regime that curtailed her freedom?
As for Dr Mahathir, the rest of Asean must be looking to him, wondering what he would do next.
“What else is Malaysia doing after such strident statements by the Prime Minister?
“No Asean country in recent times has singled out the leader of a fellow Asean country especially on the United Nations platform,” said an official.
When Dr Mahathir says he no longer supports Suu Kyi, what does he mean exactly? Suu Kyi is a legitimate leader who is still popular among her people.
“What is it that you want to do when you make that statement? What message are you sending?
“How do you translate it through Malaysia’s foreign policy,” asked an observer.
Malaysia must realise there could be some repercussion over such remarks.
It may affect not only relations with Myanmar but also other Asean countries because “we are like a family”.
An official admitted that any statement deemed critical of leaders of another country could diminish any measure of trust that remains between Malaysia and Myanmar.
“In Asean or even Asia as a whole, face saving is very important. You do not humiliate, you don’t admonish if you want to maintain relations and some form of trust,” the official said.
Going tough on the Rohingya issue started in Najib’s time. Is Dr Mahathir’s speech at Unga an indication that the current Government is not compromising and will take an even tougher stance on this issue?
Whatever the Prime Minister utters is officially national position. Which means officials will have to rationalise it and implement it in the best way that will protect and promote Malaysia’s interests, not only in its relations to the country concerned but also Asean and globally.
For Malaysia to play a constructive role, it is important to protect and maintain some level of goodwill and trust.
Putting it simply, it is vital to maintain good relations and keep the communication lines open.