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Activists Welcome New Thai Government's Policy Stance on Burma


Burmese pro-democracy activists have welcomed the stated policy approach by the new Thai government and its call for political change in Burma ahead of Burma's general elections, scheduled for 2010. The Thai Government is also looking to other South East Asian nations to be more active in calling for reform in the military ruled country.

The new Thai Government's policy stance on Burma was set out in a key address by the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, this week and his warnings about the political situation in Burma have wider ramifications for the whole region.

Mr Abhisit, in an address to foreign correspondents this week, said the government would look to encourage reform in Burma, also known as Myanmar, through a process of "flexible engagement".

The flexible engagement policy, adopted by the then-foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan, now secretary-general of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), called for more open dialogue on issues such as human rights.

"ASEAN to be strong it has to have the credibility and respect from the international community," he said. "So what's happening in Myanmar clearly affects the rest of the region - and I would just point out that it's time for change. As far as we are concerned we need to get ASEAN to become more proactive - it's not easy but I've seen changes and I've seen progress. "

Under the former Thai governments led by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, from 2001 until 2006, priority was given to Thailand's economic and business ties with Burma. Under a policy of "constructive engagement" Thailand and ASEAN had adopted a more low key diplomatic approach in its dealing with Burma.

Naing Aung, a former Burmese student leader and a civic group, the Network for Democracy and Development, welcomed the current Thai government's new move to place greater emphasis on human rights issues and political reform.

"Thailand's new government will be standing on the human rights and then more on the democratic principal," he said. "But in terms of making pressure if they are going through ASEAN it will still be difficult because ASEAN as a whole, they still have a policy of non-interference."

Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for the Alternative ASEAN network on Burma, said the Thai government policy also needed to be backed by calls for the release of political prisoners. Stothardt said Thailand, as the current chair of ASEAN, had a role to play to promote political reform. An ASEAN leaders summit is due to take place in late February in Thailand.

"What we need to see really from the other ASEAN governments - including the new Thai government - is sufficient political will to deal with this problem once and for all," she said. "ASEAN needs to realize that this regime has no respect for polite diplomacy - this regime will only respect ASEAN when ASEAN shows that it is determined."

Burma's military government has said its road map to democracy and general elections in 2010 needs the political steps the government is taking. But many analysts expect the military to still retain considerable influence in the new parliament, backed by a constitution seen as favoring the military.

Burma's military has been in power since 1962, with the current government ruling the country since 1988. It ignored the last election result in 1990, won in a landslide by the party spearheaded by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest.

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