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Southeast Asian Foreign Ministers say Burma Situation Hurts ASEAN's Credibility


Southeast Asian foreign ministers have opened their annual meeting with the political stagnation in Burma casting a shadow over their goal of regional integration, and damaging ASEAN's credibility with the international community.

In his opening speech to the meeting Tuesday, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar emphasized the Association of Southeast Asian Nations's goal, of an integrated ASEAN community by 2020.

But more attention was on Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called, and to the failure of the Burmese military government to allow long-promised democratic reforms.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi on Tuesday expressed the frustration being felt by most ASEAN governments at the Burmese generals' intransigence.

"In our region, the situation in Myanmar is impacting up on the image and credibility of ASEAN," he said. "Therefore we also hope that the government of Myanmar will take the necessary steps to enable Myanmar to soon move forward with the rest of ASEAN."

ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong says Burma's intransigence has hurt ASEAN's relations with its major dialogue and trading partners - such as the United States and the European Union, both of which have imposed sanctions on Burma.

In an interview, Ong told VOA that the dilemma facing ASEAN is how to pressure the Burmese generals to allow democratic reform, without making them "walk away from the table" in anger.

The foreign ministers, he said, feel they have been misled by the Burmese leadership.

"(The) ASEAN habit of working together is never to be confrontational and make things difficult for any member country," he said. "But I sense that they (ministers) are really unhappy over what they see to be a leading up the garden path, and now there's no action, and they're left high and dry."

The ministers also issued a statement Tuesday condemning the fighting in the Middle East, and calling for an immediate cease-fire. They welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region as an "encouraging step."

Rice is expected at the ASEAN regional forum later this week.

The ministerial meeting, which also includes guest ministers from East Timor and Papua New Guinea, will later discuss regional economic and security issues. ASEAN has 10 members: in addition to Malaysia and Burma they include Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines.

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