July 25, 2005

SE Asia turns up heat on Myanmar over ASEAN chair

By Darren Schuettler

VIENTIANE (Reuters) - Myanmar's military junta is likely to
come under pressure on Tuesday to skip its turn to chair
southeast Asia's regional bloc and prevent its neighbors from
being tainted by Yangon's poor human rights record.

At their annual foreign ministers' meeting, the Association
of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is expected to ask the
former Burma to defer taking over leadership in 2006, which has
put the 10-member regional bloc on a collision course with the

However, there is little concrete evidence that Myanmar
Foreign Minister Nyan Win, who emerged stony-faced from a
dinner with his counterparts in the Lao capital on Monday
evening, is going to come up with the answer ASEAN wants to

Critics say ASEAN's standing will suffer if the group fails
to persuade Yangon's generals to defer the chair until they
have achieved meaningful democratic reform, including the
release of democracy icon and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

"ASEAN must safeguard its own credibility and legitimacy by
making clear it will not be swindled by the Myanmar regime's
diversions and rhetoric," the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus
on Myanmar said in a statement.

"If Myanmar refuses to accede to ASEAN's polite diplomacy,
we urge ASEAN to take the initiative to deny Myanmar the
chair," said the group of lawmakers from the region.

On a visit to Cambodia prior to the ASEAN Regional Forum
(ARF), an Asia-Pacific security meeting which starts on
Thursday, British Foreign office minister Ian Pearson repeated
threats of a Western boycott of ASEAN meetings under Myanmar's

"Clearly it would be, I think, very difficult not just for
the UK but for the EU and for other countries to deal with
ASEAN if Burma was to hold the chair under the current
circumstances," said Pearson, who represents the European Union
under its system of a rotating presidency.


Myanmar's chairmanship is not a formal agenda item when the
ministers get down to work, although officials expect the issue
to get an airing during an informal "retreat" later on Tuesday.

However, Nyan Win's refusal to meet United Nations Special
Envoy to Myanmar Razali Ismail, who has not been allowed into
Yangon since March 2004, does not suggest a spirit of
compromise is in the air.

"We asked to see him and he declined. He said he would be
too busy," Razali told reporters.

Other ministers said Nyan Win did not broach the issue at
Monday's dinner, nor was the topic raised at that day's senior
officials' meeting, raising the prospect there will simply be
no resolution of the chairmanship issue in Laos.

Opening remarks by Laos Prime Minister Bounnyang Vorachit,
which reaffirmed ASEAN's longstanding commitment to
non-interference in the internal affairs of a member state,
also lent weight to this view.

Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon called for
patience, saying there was still plenty of time left.

"We should not rush to conclude that there is no
breakthrough," he told reporters. "We have four days ahead of
us and we look forward to interaction and hopefully we'll have
some positive movement."

ASEAN, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos,
Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the
Philippines, has been trying to tease political reforms out of
Yangon's generals through a "constructive engagement" policy.

Conversely, Europe and the United States have favored
sanctions in an attempt to restore multi-party civilian
government after more than four decades of army rule.

Neither approach has made any headway. (Additional
reporting by Ek Madra in PHNOM PENH) (ASEAN; Writing by Ed
Cropley, editing by Michael Battye; Reuters Messaging:
[email protected]; tel +66 2648 9722))