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Japan Ties Relations with Burma to Release of Pro-Democracy Leader

Japan says it will reconsider its relations with Burma if it does not release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Japanese Foreign Minister issued the warning at a meeting with her Burmese counterpart on the sidelines of the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima says Japan has been pursuing a policy of engagement with Burma because of the dialogue it initiated two years ago with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party.

But he said if the recent crackdown on the NLD continues, the Japanese policy will change.

"The Japanese government has been making it very clear that if the situation continues, then it will be very difficult for the Japanese government to continue the policies of engagement as such," he said.

The spokesman says the government at the moment is not considering sanctions against Burma, but says it has a wide range of options. Japan is a significant trade partner and aid donor for Burma.

The announcement, which was viewed as uncharacteristically blunt for Japanese diplomacy, follows a formal request by Southeast Asian foreign ministers for the release of Burma's pro-democracy activist.

ASEAN foreign ministers issued a statement Tuesday, saying they welcome assurances by the Burmese government that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi's detention is temporary, but urging Rangoon to resume the dialogue with her party on a peaceful democratic transition.

Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said ASEAN took this unusual step of involving itself in the domestic politics of a member after what he called very frank talks.

"We had very frank discussion, very broad discussion, and our colleague from Myanmar has a very open mind. He took note," he said.

ASEAN has been criticized for not pressing to end Burma's military crackdown because of its policy of non-interference in the affairs of its members. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is to join ministers of ASEAN, Asia, Europe, and North America Wednesday in the ASEAN Regional Forum, is urging Asian leaders to apply greater pressure on Burma for political reform.

ASEAN governments, many of whom are major trading partners with Burma, say they believe the policy of engagement is more likely to bring in reform in Burma than sanctions and diplomatic isolation.