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Southeast Asian ministers meeting at a regional summit said Thursday they quizzed Burma over its controversial election plans, but stopped short of criticising the ruling junta.
Burma plans to hold its first elections in two decades later this year, but new laws that effectively ban detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from taking part have led her party to boycott the vote.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers met late Wednesday ahead of the bloc’s summit, and said the issue of holding free and fair polls was raised with their Burma counterpart Nyan Win.
“We were not criticising him or lecturing him or telling him what to do. We were just making observations and suggestions and he took them in a good spirit,” said Singapore foreign minister George Yeo.
“The coming months will be critical months for Myanmar [Burma],” Yeo said, but added: “In the end, what happens in Myanmar is for the Myanmar people to decide. We are outsiders… we hope that they would make progress quickly.”
Under the electoral laws, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy would have to expel her in order to participate in the vote because she is serving a prison term. The Nobel peace laureate has been detained for 14 of the last 20 years.
Amnesty International said Wednesday that Burma’s flawed election plans and “appalling” human rights record should dominate the ASEAN summit, but Yeo defended the group’s policy of non-interference in members’ affairs.
“We are not in a position to punish Myanmar,” Yeo said, adding that tough United States and European Union sanctions had failed to yield any change.
ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said the body was “giving the full expression of support to what Myanmar wants to do”, but said the ruling generals were aware that its rights record continues to haunt ASEAN.
“Myanmar appreciates that… ASEAN has been seized with this issue for a long, long time and would like to see an end to this issue so that Myanmar itself and ASEAN can move on to a closer cooperation,” Surin said.
Indonesia has been one of ASEAN’s most outspoken members on Myanmar’s failure to shift to democracy and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa called on its rulers to live up to their promises over the long-awaited polls.
“We would have been keen to ensure that the planned election is carried out in a manner that is free, democratic, transparent, inclusive along the lines precisely as the Myanmar authorities themselves have said,” he said.
Meanwhile, informed sources have told DVB that Indonesia will take the ASEAN chair after Vietnam, in place of Brunei. The change was made because of future schedule conflicts, the source said, although declined to elaborate.
Additional reporting by DVB