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Rights Groups Want Indonesia to Press Burma on Democratic Reform

Human rights groups are calling on Indonesia to urge Burma to ensure its coming election is free and fair at a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said that Indonesia will promote democracy. And human rights groups in Asia want him to make good on that pledge by pressing Burma's military government to hold free and fair elections.

Mr. Yudhoyono meets Thursday and Friday in Vietnam the leaders of Burma and the other members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations.

Elaine Pearson, with Human Rights Watch, wrote an open letter to the Indonesian foreign minister calling on him to press for reform in Burma. She says Indonesia has both the experience and credibility to influence the Burmese leadership.

"Because Indonesia is the leading member of ASEAN and it has been a strong and principled voice on the human rights situation in Burma, and because of its own history and transition from a military-led government to a democracy. Really this puts Indonesia in a very strong position to be listened to by the Burmese generals," she said.

Burma has been ruled by the military for most of the past six decades. The government plans to hold elections this year but has yet to set a date.

The last time the country's leaders agreed to hold elections was in 1990. The opposition National League for Democracy won, but the military refused to recognize the results of the race.

The NLD is boycotting the coming elections over election laws they say are restrictive and undemocratic. The laws prohibit registered parties from having political prisoners in their ranks.

The NLD's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been detained for most of the past 20 years, as have several other party officials.

ASEAN members are divided on how to respond to Burma, which is under European Union and United States sanctions because of its poor human rights record. ASEAN has a policy of not interfering in the internal affairs of its members.

Yuyun Wahyuningrum, with the aid group Oxfam says, at this week's summit, the political security community will for the first time discuss possible sanctions for members that violate the ASEAN human rights charter.

But she says since ASEAN operates by consensus, it is unlikely they will take any punitive actions.

"In one way or another they will talk about sanctions, but I am not sure about the result because being a family and being living in harmony is one of the principles in ASEAN," she said.

Still, she is hopeful that over time diplomatic engagement and increasing pressure from democratic neighbors like Indonesia can help Burma make a peaceful transition to democracy.