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EU to Allow Burma's Foreign Minister to Attend Asia-Europe Summit

The European Union has agreed to allow Burma's foreign minister to attend a summit of European and Asian leaders in Helsinki later this year.

The European Union will waive a travel ban on Burma's top leaders to allow Burmese Foreign Minister to attend the Asia-Europe Meeting in September.

Finland will hold the Asia-Europe Meeting, known as ASEM, in September and heads of governments from 38 countries are expected to attend.

ASEM officials said Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur that the decision was made to promote "critical dialogue" between Burma and the EU but it does not mean a softening of Europe's stance against the country's military government.

The European Union is sharply critical of Burma's human rights record, its detention of opposition figures and its failure to make democratic reforms. The EU has imposed sanctions on the country, including a ban on visits by Burmese officials.

A 2004 summit in Hanoi nearly did not take place because of EU objections to Burma's attendance. That drew protests from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member. A compromise was reached that allowed Burma to be represented by a lower-level delegation.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda Wednesday told reporters there are differences between Western governments and ASEAN on dealing with Burma, which is also known as Myanmar. But, he said, both ways have problems.

"The West tends to prefer sanctions and pressure approach. I think they also recognize that these sanctions do not work, do not produce something concrete in changing Myanmar and pushing Myanmar in their democratization process," said Wirajuda. "Likewise, we must admit that constructive engagement by ASEAN has not been able to produce something we in ASEAN wanted to see. That's why [there are] frustrations in the international community."

The EU's decision comes just after Burma received a mild rebuke from fellow ASEAN members. On Tuesday, ASEAN foreign ministers called for "tangible" progress in Burma's road map to political reform, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.

Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, despite the objections of the EU, the United States and other countries because of its poor rights records. Leaders in other ASEAN countries, however, argued that engaging with Burma would encourage its military government to end its isolation and make reforms.

Burma's government unveiled the road map to democracy in 2003 but gave no timetable. A convention to form a new constitution has been indefinitely suspended but Tuesday Burmese officials said it could resume this year.

European Union officials are in Kuala Lumpur this week to meet with the foreign ministers of the 10 ASEAN nations. In addition, they will take part in the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting Friday - a gathering to discuss security issues, which the United States, China, Japan, and other countries also will attend.