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Burma gets rare ASEAN straight talk on free polls

First Posted 05:31:00 07/21/2010

HANOI?Southeast Asian foreign ministers gave the military-run government of Burma (Myanmar) an ?earful? while demanding that it hold free and fair elections?a rare stand by the cautious group often accused of overlooking rights abuses in member nations.
Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began their annual meeting on Tuesday in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi to tackle a diverse agenda?from setting up a European-style economic community by 2015 to bolstering ties with the West and regional powerhouses China, Japan and India.

But at a dinner on the eve of the conference, Burma took center stage as diplomats vented their concerns about planned elections, which the junta has said will be held this year, without giving a date.

Many ministers told their counterpart from Burma that the junta should hold ?free, fair and inclusive? elections. Such straight talk is unusual given the ASEAN members? bedrock policy of not interfering in one another?s domestic affairs.

?Myanmar, I think, got an earful last night that ASEAN is very much concerned,? ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters on the sidelines of Tuesday?s meeting. The ministers also offered to send observers to the elections.

A sham

Burma?s Foreign Minister Nyan Win, in keeping with his government?s typical secrecy, did not give a date for the vote.

?The responsibility is for the ... elections commissioner, not the foreign minister,? he said.

Critics have dismissed the election?the first in two decades?as a sham designed to cement nearly 50 years of military rule in Burma.

Detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will not be allowed to participate in the elections, and her party has disbanded in order to boycott the vote.

?The way that the military regime is treating political prisoners led by Aung San Suu Kyi even makes the ASEAN countries embarrassed,? said Trevor Wilson, a Burma expert at Australian National University in Canberra. ?And they?re pretty good at treating political prisoners badly themselves.?

RP proposal

On Monday, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya also raised concerns about allegations that Burma may be interested in developing a nuclear weapons program with help from North Korea. Burma has denied those claims.

In addition to Burma, the association is also expected to discuss North Korea?s nuclear program.

The Philippines has proposed that a group be formed to persuade North Korea to return to stalled talks aimed at pressuring the regime into giving up its nukes, according to a diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press.

Tensions between North and South Korea are high following the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors in the sinking of a warship blamed on Pyongyang earlier this year. The North has denied involvement.

Security forum

Later this week, North Korea?s foreign minister is expected to attend a security forum in Hanoi with all members of the disarmament talks, including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The last talks, which involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, were held in Beijing in 2008.

ASEAN, founded in 1967, includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Associated Press

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