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New Southeast Asian Human Rights Body Likely to Keep Hands Off Burma

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations this week signed a charter listing human rights protection as one of its goals. But an internal document shows the organization is more likely to protect its members - including Burma - from outside interference on human rights matters. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from the ASEAN summit in Singapore.

A confidential list of recommendations drawn up by ASEAN officials, which leaked out Wednesday, says ASEAN will not interfere in human rights issues, but instead will protect member countries from outside interference.

At a news conference, ASEAN's current chairman, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, defended the recommendations. But he said the wording in the leaked documents might not be final.

"This is an issue which will have to be settled," he said. "The reason that it is put in that treaty just as that brief reference is because the terms of reference have not been settled, and I think the terms of reference will need to include some definition of what we're talking about, and that will have to be negotiated before we have that section of the treaty implemented."

ASEAN remains deeply divided on how to deal with Burma, which has strong trade relationships with many of its fellow members.

These divisions were exposed this week: Philippine President Gloria Arroyo said it would be difficult for her country's congress to ratify the ASEAN charter as long as Burma keeps opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.

ASEAN on Monday said Burma should undertake meaningful democratic reforms, and release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. But several leaders, including Singapore's Lee have rejected western nations' calls for sanctions or other tough measures against Burma.

Mr. Lee said the group is not ignoring Burma, but he suggested ASEAN is not ready to put it at the top of its agenda.

"It is one of the growing pains and road blocks which we have to deal with ... It is not easy to resolve," he said. "It is not a neat and tidy solution which you can put away and dispose of from the agenda. But it is something which we have confronted, discussed, and will have to take in our stride while we pursue the rest of our agenda on cooperation within ASEAN and building a regional architecture in Asia."

The U.N. special envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, met with Mr. Lee Wednesday.

Gambari had been scheduled to address ASEAN leaders this week. But Singapore abruptly canceled his speech Tuesday under pressure from Burma, which opposed discussion here of its violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in September.

Gambari, who has visited Burma twice since the bloody crackdown, says he expects to pay another visit to the country before the end of the year.

Protection of human rights is one of the goals listed in a landmark charter signed by leaders of the 40-year-old organization on Tuesday. The document establishes ASEAN as a legal entity, and puts it on track for the establishment of a free trade zone in the year 2015.

ASEAN leaders hosted the East Asia Summit, which also included leaders from Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea - nations with which ASEAN is keen to expand trade. Wednesday's ceremonies included the signing of an ASEAN free-trade agreement on services with South Korea, similar to one the group already has with China.