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EU Asian Leaders Struggle to End Dispute Over Burma - 2004-06-15


Diplomats in Southeast Asia and Europe are working to resolve a dispute over Burma's participation in a summit of leaders from the two regions. The European Union has canceled two lower-level meetings with its Asian partners over the issue.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations had insisted all 10 of its members, including Burma, attend the July meeting of European and Asian finance ministers, and a September gathering of economy ministers.

But the European Union has voted to bar Burma from the meetings, which were to be held in Europe, so they were canceled.

The EU has imposed tough visa restrictions on Burma's military leadership because of its poor human-rights record.

The issue is threatening a summit of Asia and European leaders at the Asia-Europe Meeting, known as ASEM, scheduled for October in Hanoi.

Diplomats from both Asia and Europe are looking for a way out of the stalemate. Asian officials say they hope Europe will see the need to hold the Hanoi summit to discuss wider issues such as regional security and economic growth.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said every effort should be made to go ahead with the Hanoi summit.

"As far as the ASEM process is concerned, we believe that the ASEM process is about cooperation between Asia and Europe and we should think in terms of the common interests that both sides have in furthering this process of cooperation," he said.

Mr. Sihasak says that while Asian countries understand European concerns about Burma, also known as Myanmar, ASEAN believes the country has made progress. He pointed out that the government opened a national convention to draft a new constitution last month.

"Overall we believe there has been progress and what we have to do now is to redouble our efforts to promote national reconciliation in Myanmar through a policy of engagement," he said.

But Western diplomats in Asia say the continued detention of opposition leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo shows little progress has been made on reform. Their party, the National League for Democracy, is boycotting the convention because Burma's government refused to release the two.

The diplomats say the meetings in Europe could go ahead only if the NLD. leaders are released, and all opposition groups can participate in the constitutional convention.

Burma has been ruled by the military since 1962. Many Western nations have imposed tough economic sanctions on Burma because of its government, and its Asian neighbors are pressing it to move ahead with political change and reform.

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