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Rice Urges Thailand to Press for Reform in Burma

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Thailand as part of a four-nation Asia tour, has urged the Thai government to press neighboring Burma's military government to release political prisoners and implement democratic reforms. Secretary Rice also visited a Thai province devastated by last December's tsunami.

Speaking after talks with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and foreign ministry officials, Secretary Rice said she had stressed the need for Burma to make progress toward democracy, and release political opponents, including Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. "We continue to talk openly about it and are encouraging all of our partners to press the case for human rights, press the case for greater openness, press the case for human rights activists like Aung San Suu Kyi," she said.

Thailand has a policy of constructive engagement with Burma, meant to cajole the military government to start talks with the opposition and ethnic minorities.

The United States, together with the European Union, has adopted a more hard-line approach, including economic sanctions, to push Burma toward democratization.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, said both approaches may be necessary to press Burma - also known as Myanmar - toward reform. "We do believe our respective approaches are mutually reinforcing and the U.S. hopes that Thailand would play a more active role in support to encourage the Myanmar government to move forward in the process of national reconciliation and democratization," he said.

Ms. Rice also confirmed she would not attend the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Laos later this month, citing scheduling conflicts. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick will represent the United States.

The United States had previously indicated it might boycott ASEAN meetings if Burma takes up the chair of the regional body in 2006, as planned.

Some Southeast Asian governments have been urging Burma to relinquish the chairmanship to avoid problems with ASEAN's key partners, such as the United States.

Secretary Rice's talks with Thai leaders also included terrorism in Southeast Asia, China's growing role in the region, and North Korea rejoining six-party nuclear disarmament talks.

She also toured the Thai province of Phang Nga to view the reconstruction in one of the areas worst hit by the December 26 tsunami.

Ms Rice is also visiting China, Japan and South Korea on her Asia tour.