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ASEAN Urges China to Help Break Burma's Political Impasse - 2003-08-22

Southeast Asian nations hope China will use its influence over Burma's military government to break the current political impasse and end the detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but it is not clear that Beijing will apply any pressure to its long-time ally.

Burma's neighbors and the United Nations are pushing China to act as a mediator to break the political impasse triggered by Rangoon's detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burma has become increasingly isolated since arresting Aung San Suu Kyi on May 30. The government is under international pressure to release her and other members of her National League for Democracy. The United Nations, Western countries and Burma's fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - ASEAN - also want the Rangoon government to resume reconciliation talks with the opposition.

In the past several days, China, a long-time ally of Burma's military government, has been courted by both sides of the debate. Regional leaders have sought Beijing's help in pushing Rangoon to begin political reforms. And Burma's government sent a senior leader to secure Beijing's backing on its position.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has proposed what he calls a road map to Burmese reform. The plan calls for talks involving the government, regional leaders, ethnic groups and key Western countries.

Thai Foreign Ministry Spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow says China has indicated its support for the road map. He says Beijing is key to efforts to promote dialogue in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"China's role is important, definitely. As I said, China has given its support to the efforts of Thailand to promote national reconciliation in Myanmar in a step-by-step way under the road map proposal, and, certainly, we would like to work with China and other countries," said Mr. Phuangketkeow.

China is a major source of trade and investment for Burma. China also has a significant cultural influence on its much smaller neighbor.

Diplomats, however, are not confident China will step in. One diplomat notes Beijing has a policy of not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.

A few days ago, a senior Chinese official criticized tough economic sanctions the United States imposed after Burma detained Aung San Suu Kyi. The comments came during a visit to Beijing by Burma's military chief.

But Aung Zaw, editor of the Burmese opposition newspaper, the Irrawaddy, thinks Beijing's final position is not yet clear.

"I think we have to wait and see. It's too early to say anything about China's position at the moment. (The) junta leaders may be worried that ASEAN has been lobbying China to come onside with them to express the opinion on the crackdown and also the release of Aung San Suu Kyi," said Mr. Zaw.

Aung Zaw says China's actions in the United Nations will be crucial, if the Security Council votes on sanctions against Burma. He says there is speculation that China, which has veto power on the Security Council, may abstain during any vote.

UN officials have called on China to take a larger role in resolving the crisis in Burma.

Burma's political problems also have led to more pressure from ASEAN. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a key supporter of Burma's entry into ASEAN in 1997, has threatened to call for the country's expulsion, unless Rangoon releases Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung Zaw says one of ASEAN's major concerns is that Burma assumes the chairmanship of the group in 2006. The 9 other members of ASEAN will want to see political stability in Burma well before then.

"They want Burma to have some sort of political stability and political settlement before 2006, when Burma is going to be chairman of ASEAN."

He says that, if Burma becomes the head of ASEAN and has not made any progress on political reform, the association could have to cope with angry trading partners and allies in the West.