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Burma's Military Leaders State Commitment Toward Democracy

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra says Burma's government intends to carry out democratic reforms, despite a leadership shakeup that strengthened the power of hard-line generals. The Thai prime minister made the remarks on the last day of a summit of Asian leaders in Laos.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said Tuesday he met Burmese Prime Minister Soe Win and urged him to implement democratic reforms. "He [Soe Win] said that the government will never want to [move] backward and will be moving toward democracy and is committed to the seven-step road map," he said.

The road map was announced last year by then-Prime Minister Khin Nyunt who was replaced in October in a shakeup that consolidated the power of hard-line generals. Nevertheless, Burma said it will pursue the road map and re-convene a national convention to draft a constitution and organize elections.

Burma also released nine thousand prisoners last week, including several members of the opposition National League for Democracy. However, N.L.D. leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest and her detention has been extended.

Prime Minister Thaksin says he urged his Burmese counterpart to work with all opposition groups, including the N.L.D. and ethnic minority rebels. "I told them [Burmese leaders] that they should embrace them [the opposition]," he said. "And they agreed that they are now inviting all of them to join the national convention."

Mr. Thaksin warns it is not easy to pressure Burma on Aung San Suu Kyi because it only hardens the government's position. He says ASEAN leaders see her release as part of the reform process.

ASEAN believes engaging Rangoon is the best way to encourage reform and to end human rights abuses, while Western governments have applied economic sanctions.

ASEAN leaders spent the last day of their summit meeting with the leaders of five major regional economies - Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. They signed agreements aimed at creating free trade areas with each of these countries. On Monday the 10 ASEAN nations signed an accord with China to create the world's largest free trade area in eight years.

ASEAN already has implemented its own free trade area, called AFTA.

During the summit, ASEAN leaders signed a score of cooperation agreements, including accords on security and cultural exchanges aimed at turning the group into a regional community by 2010.