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Pro-Democracy Activists Applaud Move to Make Burma's Military Leaders Skip ASEAN Chair


Pro-democracy activists in Asia are applauding the decision for Burma to skip its turn chairing the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. The move came this week at the annual ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in response to intense pressure on Burma's military rulers to deliver on promised reforms first.

A group of Southeast Asian parliamentary members are praising ASEAN foreign ministers for their "skillful diplomacy" in convincing Burma to forego the chair of ASEAN in 2006.

The lobby - known officially as the Inter-parliamentary Caucus on Democracy in Burma - has been vocal in urging their governments to press Burma to reform and release of political prisoners - especially democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The caucus includes lawmakers from Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.

Malaysian caucus member Peresa Kok, says now the task remains for ASEAN governments to get Burma to actually implement the democratic reforms it promised to two years ago - including a constitution and elections.

"They shouldn't be too soft on Burma because compared to other countries (in Asia) Burma is the worst in terms of human rights and democracy records. So ASEAN should continue to also demonstrate its ability to bring change in Burma through the network of ASEAN," said Peresa Kok.

This is the first time ASEAN has appeared to deviate from its policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states.

The issue had split ASEAN along political lines. Democratic governments feared Burmese leadership could taint the credibility of ASEAN. But authoritarian-ruled nations like Vietnam and Laos opposed pressuring Burma.

The United States and European Union had threatened to boycott the meetings in 2006 if Burma hosted.

Debbie Stoddard, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, says the country will suffer economically from skipping its chance host ASEAN - after it spent money on infrastructure improvements without recouping revenue.

"For many people in Burma - especially in Rangoon - [taking up] the chair of ASEAN represented a chance to revive the local economy. So the chance to make that money has gone - at least for the next 12 months," she said.

Ms. Stoddard, other activists and analysts remain skeptical however if economic disincentives - including long standing Western sanctions on Rangoon - will make an impact. Burma has been under military rule since 1962. The current generals have been in power since 1988 and nullified the 1990 elections when the democratic opposition won.

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