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Burma's Military Government Resists Call for Reform

  • Ron Corben

Burma's military government is refusing to bow to pressure from its neighbors to speed up political reforms. The refusal comes as foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian nations prepare to discuss whether to deny Burma its turn next year as ASEAN chairman.

Refusing again to be influenced by international public opinion, Burma's foreign minister says it is his country's "responsibility" to take the ASEAN chair on schedule in 2006.

U Nyan Win, arriving in the Central Philippines for an annual three-day retreat with his fellow ASEAN foreign ministers, said the other governments in the Southeast Asian bloc agree with Burma's military government on this point.

In fact, ASEAN is facing a growing rift over the question. The governments of several member states, along with a number of members of parliament from ASEAN nations, are pressing for Burma to make major reforms before 2006 or be denied the chairmanship.

The move is prompted in part by fears that the United States and the European Union, both strong allies of ASEAN, will deny development aid and cooperation to the region if Burma is given the honor of leading the bloc.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said he will be restating calls this week for Burma to free democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost two years. He said he would also press Rangoon to include the opposition in drawing up a new constitution, and to allow the United Nations special envoy to Burma to visit the country.

Zaid Ibrahim, a member of parliament in Malaysia and president of ASEAN's inter-parliamentary caucus on Burma, told VOA recently that many in ASEAN are looking to Rangoon for a minimum set of reforms.

"We are saying that the basic minimum should be a convention or a process of democracy that includes, incorporates and accommodates the diverse groups in the country," he said. "And you must take that as the proof that you are interested in genuine reconciliation, and we do not see how continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi is conducive with that."

Burma became a member of the 10-nation ASEAN in 1997, despite protests from the European Union and United States. ASEAN argued that by accepting Burma as a member, the member states would be able to use "constructive engagement" to nudge the military government towards reform.

In 2003 Burma announced a road map to democracy with promises of general elections after the drafting of a new constitution. But a constitutional convention that began last year has accomplished little, and the government recently recessed it until late this year.

Diplomats at the Philippines retreat have said that the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore will prod Burma on reforms.

But Burma has received support from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has said Burma's political reforms are an internal affair - the traditional ASEAN position of staying out of each other's affairs.