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Issue of Burma Dogs Southeast Asian Summit

The issue of Burma's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators and its failure to enact reforms has dogged leaders gathering this week at the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and exposed deep divisions among them. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Singapore, where the leaders marked the 40th year of the organization with the signing of a charter.

Leaders of the ten nations of ASEAN celebrated with a toast to the future of the organization after signing the charter document. Behind the celebrations, however, are deep divisions that surfaced at the meeting over how to handle one member, Burma.

The divisions became apparent when Philippine President Gloria Arroyo said it would be difficult for her country's congress to ratify the charter as long as Burma kept opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.

The Philippines is among the ASEAN countries supporting tougher action on Burma until it enacts reforms and improves its human rights record. Others, such as Thailand, which have strong economic ties to the country, have opted for the Burma issue to be treated as an internal affair by the Burmese.

Cambodia's foreign minister, Hor Namhong, said that by signing the charter, which calls for the establishment of a human rights body, Burma agrees to do more to protect human rights.

"If we sign the, Myanmar will have to respect," he said.

But some observers see that as overly optimistic, as it is not yet clear how the new rights body will be structured or how much enforcement power it will have.

For now, Burma has succeeded in blocking at least some discussion of its actions here. Summit organizers abruptly canceled plans for a speech by U.N. Special Envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari.

The decision followed protests from Burma's government. A member of the Burmese delegation who spoke on Monday indicated the Burmese military leadership does not want the matter of its crackdown on demonstrators to be internationalized.

The official said Gambari should speak at the United Nations and leave matters of Southeast Asia to the Southeast Asians.

Host Singapore said it would facilitate meetings between individual nations' delegations and Gambari. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo took up the offer and met with him on Tuesday.

The grouping issued a statement after canceling Gambari's address, urging Burmese military rulers to work toward a peaceful transition to democracy and free Aung San Suu Kyi as well as others who are detained for opposing the military rulers.

ASEAN leaders early in the summit rejected calls by the United States and other western nations to take firm action on Burma's military rulers. The U.S. Trade Representative, speaking on the sidelines of summit this week, said ASEAN's inaction on Burma is undermining the credibility of the organization.