Wednesday, December 01, 2004

TODAYonline: Asean's response on Myanmar muted

as mentioned yesterday, all quiet on the western front, or should i say, on the south-east front
Asean's response on Myanmar muted

Wednesday • December 1, 2004

Tor Ching Li in Vientiane

THERE had been hopes that the 10th summit would see a new sense of direction take shape within the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), but the two-day event closed yesterday with an all-too-familiar note of ambiguity.

And once again the issue of democracy in Myanmar provided embarrassment for Asean and threatened to overshadow the achievements of the most ambitious summit to date, one that saw the signing of a record number of 20 agreements and a historic trade deal with China.

Reports came late on Monday night from Yangon that the ruling junta had extended the house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi by another year, baffling Asean leaders — some of whom had just praised Myanmar's decision to release more than 9,000 prisoners.

Response from the Asean leaders yesterday was generally muted, while Myanmar — which joined the grouping in 1997 — kept silent on the issue, refusing to confirm or deny the news that had been released by Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy.

According to an AFP report, officials in Yangon responsible for Suu Kyi's detention confirmed that her confinement had been extended.

But Myanmar's Prime Minister Soe Win did not confirm this during his breakfast meeting with Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra yesterday.

"I asked him: What is the true story? He said he has to check. He didn't have any details," said Dr Thaksin to journalists after the meeting.

In their discussion spanning several issues including the democratisation process of Myanmar, Mr Soe Win stressed that the "seven step roadmap" for democracy in Myanmar would continue as planned.

Mr Jakarpop Pankair, a Thai government spokesperson, said that while Thailand "embraces the total reconciliation of Myanmar", it would not "push Myanmar".

Nor did Dr Thaksin touch specifically on the release of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

"It is not easy to push Myanmar in terms of saying 'release Aung San Suu Kyi'. That makes the target harder if you push on a particular point," said Dr Thaksin.

Dr Thaksin is optimistic about a "major development" in Myanmar within the next two years. It is due to host the Asean Summit in 2006. He said: "Now they have started to release the prisoners, but not Aung San Suu Kyi yet. One year from now on, some things must be improved".

Indonesian spokesperson for foreign affairs, Mr Marty Natalegawa, was less optimistic. "We hope that conditions will be conducive enough for the summit to be held in Myanmar. Hopefully the summit will have a positive effect on the way Myanmar thinks. One thing certain in the way Myanmar conducts itself is uncertainty," he said.

He told Today that if the reports from Yangon turn out to be true, "then certainly it would appear to be inconsistent with Myanmar's publicly expressed commitments and it would appear to be inconsistent with the initial hope engendered with the release of its political prisoners over the past few weeks".

"If confirmed, obviously it is a matter of consternation for Indonesia. But we have yet to hear from the Myanmar side officially," he added.

Yesterday evening, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the media he still had not heard confirmation from Myanmar if the detention had indeed been extended, but he said: "Assuming the reports are true, then the timing is rather unfortunate."

On Asean's muted response on Myanmar, Indonesia's Mr Natalegawa said: "It is the prerogative of the Asean Chairman to express what is in the Chairman's statement. In the past there has been expression on Myanmar, though there isn't in the statement we adopted yesterday.

"On the other hand, the issue has been discussed in some shape and form in the course of the summit. It's really up to the Chairman to capture the mood within Asean."

Mr Andi Mallarangeng, Indonesian spokesperson for the president, said: "Concerns may not be voiced at the summit level, but at a lower and bilateral level, there are deep discussions."

To many observers, Myanmar exposes Asean at its weakest — its policy of non-interference prevents the grouping from addressing human rights abuses within the borders of its member countries.

This was the reason cited by Australia — which attended the summit as an external dialogue partner for the first time since 1997 — for not signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) yesterday.

Canberra said this pact would bar it from criticising the domestic policies of Asean countries such as Myanmar.

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