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Burma, North Korea to Dominate Southeast Asian Ministers' Talks


Burma and North Korea are expected to dominate talks this week as foreign ministers from Southeast Asian nations, and Asian and Western powers begin meetings Tuesday in Malaysia.

This is not the first time ASEAN foreign ministers will have to grapple with member Burma's slow pace toward democratic reforms and continued repression of the political opposition.

But ahead of this annual meeting Tuesday, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been very vocal in expressing impatience with Burma's military government. Host Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar has made clear that ASEAN may no longer be able defend Burma if its does not cooperate with ASEAN.

Politics Professor Chayachoke Chulasiriwongs of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand says the rest of ASEAN is also signaling tougher action may be in store.

"Most of the ASEAN members are not too happy about Burma," he said. "One can see that a number of ASEAN leaders have come out saying quite straight forward and try to convince SPDC [Burma's government] that they should do something about human rights abuses, about Aung San Suu Kyi. "I think this is significant. Even ministers of some other countries that used to support Burmese leaders now have asked that the Burmese leaders do something about it."

Burma's military government, also known as SPDC, proposed a "roadmap" to democracy in 2003, but no time frame was set and little has been achieved.

Some ASEAN officials say the Burma issue is undermining ASEAN's credibility and its relations with Western major trading partners such as the United States and the European Union - countries which want Burma to improve human rights, release detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and allow her National League for Democracy - which won national elections in 1990 - to take power.

ASEAN members, with a tradition of non-interference in each other's internal affairs, have been making the Burma situation an exception.

Noel Morada, a politics professor at the University of the Philippines, says ASEAN is at a crossroads.

"The embarrassment of Burma's membership without democratic progress taking place would continue to be a major problem for ASEAN's diplomacy with the West," commented Morada. "But at the same time, I think there's perspective in the region that ASEAN should not be bogged down by the Burma issue."

Later in the week, ASEAN foreign ministers and their counterparts from Asian and Western powers are expected to focus on regional security issues, including North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend for the first time the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Friday.

It will be the first chance for foreign ministers of the six parties to the North Korea nuclear talks - China, Japan, the United States, Russia, North and South Korea - to meet since Pyongyang test launched missiles on July 5. Officials hope this meeting might help defuse current tensions on the Korean Peninsula and convince North Korea to return to the three-year old disarmament negotiations.

Talks have failed to resume since the last round in September when North Korea promised in principle to dismantle its weapons program in exchange for aid.

ASEAN members will also discuss progress toward regional economic integration and sign agreements on visa exemption, an enhanced U.S.-ASEAN partnership, an anti-terrorism declaration with Canada and an extension on the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with France.

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