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Southeast Asian Leaders Urge Burma to Speed Reform

Southeast Asian leaders have urged Burma to speed democratic reforms and release political prisoners. Breaking with their traditional policy of non-interference in each other's internal affairs, the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued the statement at a summit in Malaysia.

In the chairman's statement, the ASEAN leaders said they took note of the Burmese military government's road map to democracy, but urged Rangoon to expedite the process.

The summit chairman, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, also said Burma, also known as Myanmar, had accepted a request by ASEAN and invited Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar to review progress on reform. "We did hear from Myanmar of the developments and that Myanmar has agreed to welcome, receive the chairman of the standing committee of ASEAN, Syed Hamid, to visit Myanmar," he said.

Foreign Minister Syed Hamid told reporters the discussion on Burma had been frank and the ASEAN leaders were very clear there must be some tangible movement toward democracy in Burma, or Myanmar. "I hope we will achieve progress. I think here they (ASEAN leaders) are trying to help Myanmar. And Myanmar has to help us in order to be able to convince the international community on the state of affairs in terms of democracy," he said.

Burma's military government announced a road map to democracy two years ago and last week re-opened a constitutional convention that is the first step in the process.

But critics say many independent politicians have been excluded from the convention, and say it is meant mainly to legitimize the military's hold on power. The Burmese government says objections by its critics have only slowed the process.

In addition, human-rights organizations say more than 1,000 political prisoners are being held in Burma. These include 100 leaders of the pro-democracy National League for Democracy and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi who has spent most of the past decade under house arrest.