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Few Options Available to Deal With Burma

Burma's fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have expressed "deep disappointment" over opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's extended house detention. As Western governments call for tougher sanctions, political analysts in the region say there are few viable options for getting the military government to yield on Aung San Suu Kyi's and Burma's political future.

The decision to extend the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi has once again raised a question that has long vexed the world - what to do with Burma's military government?

Western governments, including the United States, Britain and France, call for Aung San Suu Kyi's immediate release and talk of applying new or tighter sanctions on the country.

But among Burma's immediate neighbors, reactions were muted. On Wednesday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Burma is a member, issued a statement from Bangkok expressing "deep disappointment".

Unchanged ASEAN's position

But ASEAN re-iterated it will continue its policy of constructive engagement with Burma - a strategy that critics say has legitimized the military government without leading to substantive political reforms.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Center in Singapore:

"Western sanctions these days almost mean nothing," he said. "The Burmese government acts like they can do whatever they like. Burma has very good relationship with China, China and even Russia. These are not only defender of Myanmar politically but also economically as well."

China, which has significant oil and natural gas interests in Burma, is seen as having the most leverage to pressure Burma to change. But Beijing Wednesday distanced itself from any involvement, calling for respect for Burma's "judicial sovereignty".

"Sanctions and engagement"

Regional political analysts say there are no easy ways to ease Burma's political repression and improve Aung San Suu Kyi's situation. However, some say that ASEAN's engagement policy stands as one of few effective strategies left.

"ASEAN can step in not because ASEAN would do a better job than Western countries, but because Burma has an obligation in ASEAN," said Pavin. "What I think people would want to see is … a right mix between sanctions and engagement."

Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is a fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He says Burma's desire for dialogue with regional organizations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SARC) opens a way for peer pressure and persuasion to work.

"Generally it is believed here that threats can drive and will drive the regime even further into its shell where it's even more non-cooperative," said Chowdhury.

Test to regional bloc's Charter

Tuesday's decision by the military government tests Burma's commitment to the ASEAN Charter, which requires members to observe democratic principles and protect human rights.

Aung San Suu Kyi was convicted of violating her house arrest because a foreigner was able to sneak uninvited into her heavily guarded compound. The military government sentenced her to 18 more months of detention. She has been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years.

Human rights groups say the charges were aimed at preventing Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy from contesting elections next year. The NLD won the last elections in 1990 but the military never allowed it to govern.

The elections are part of the Burma's "road map to democracy", unveiled in 2003. That plan is in part the result of years of urging from ASEAN. Pavin says ASEAN faces a problem: while it is able to persuade the military to make some changes, the results may not be enough.

"ASEAN would have to get on with it," he said. "Then everything will be back to square one again. This is the reality."

Aside from Burma, ASEAN is comprised of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Brunei.