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US Welcomes Burmese Decision to Forego ASEAN Chairmanship

The United States Tuesday welcomed Burma's decision to forego its turn next year as chairman of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. U.S. officials had warned that Washington would curtail its ties with ASEAN if Burma was heading the organization.

Both the United States and European Union had threatened to boycott ASEAN meetings next year if Burma took over the rotating chairmanship.

But officials here say they believe it was pressure from within ASEAN itself that prompted the military government in Rangoon to pass up its turn to head the regional grouping.

An ASEAN statement said Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win told ASEAN colleagues of the decision Tuesday in Vientiane, saying his government wanted to give its full attention to what he said was its ongoing process of national reconciliation and democratization.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack welcomed the Burmese decision, though saying U.S. officials have seen little progress toward democracy there.

"We look forward to continuing to work with ASEAN to strengthen our cooperation in the areas of common interest, said Mr. McCormack. "In the meantime, Burma remains far from the goal of a peaceful transition to democracy, and arrests of pro-democracy supporters continue unabated, as do egregious human rights abuses."

Mr. McCormack repeated the U.S. call for the unconditional release of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and key associates so they can join in a dialogue leading to genuine national reconciliation and establishment of democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate, has been under detention most of the time since her National League for Democracy party won national elections in 1990 but was barred by military authorities from taking power.

The United States had been warning for some time that it would be difficult to maintain full relations with ASEAN if it handed the chairmanship to Burma next year in the absence of major progress toward democracy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice broke with recent tradition by deciding not to attend this week's ASEAN Regional Forum, which will follow the group's current foreign ministers' session in Laos.

But officials here say the secretary's decision to send her deputy, Robert Zoellick, to Vientiane instead was because of a scheduling problem and had nothing to do with the Burmese issue or displeasure with ASEAN.

Ms. Rice returned to Washington Sunday after a six-day trip to Africa and the Middle East, including critical talks on Israel's plans to withdraw from Gaza. She was in Asia earlier this month, and aides say it was impractical to schedule a second trip to the region for the ASEAN forum.