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Southeast Asians, Europeans Agree Burma Issue Should Not Hold up Trade Negotiations

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union have endorsed a five-year plan to enhance security and trade ties between the two blocs, and they urged Burma's military rulers to speed up democratic reforms and release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. VOA Southeast Asia correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Singapore, where ASEAN has just wrapped up a five-day summit overshadowed by the issue of Burma.

Officially, the summit was supposed to focus on ASEAN's 40th anniversary and the signing of a charter laying out the grouping's goals of economic integration, democracy, and protection of the environment. Overshadowing practically every aspect of the gathering, however, has been the issue of Burma, and the violence that its military leaders unleashed on monks and other peaceful protesters in September.

Leaders ended the five-day summit with a luncheon and meetings with the European Union, with whom ASEAN wants expanded trade. The two blocs agreed to speed up talks on a free-trade agreement linking 37 countries and one billion people.

At a news conference Thursday, the current ASEAN chairman, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said ASEAN would not let the matter of Burma hold up trade talks with the EU.

"While Myanmar is undoubtedly a significant issue, ASEAN-EU relations should not be held hostage by it. [There are] many areas in which we can cooperate for mutual benefit and the EU should take a broader strategic interest in ASEAN," he said.

The EU has imposed new sanctions on Burma since the September crackdown and has called on others to do the same. Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who holds the EU's rotating presidency, stopped short of making that call in public at Thursday's joint news conference here. Instead, he emphasized that differences between the EU and ASEAN on Burma are not fundamental.

"We have a common approach: Myanmar must become [a] democracy and must respect human rights," he said. "Both organizations want to do what's best in order to achieve that goal. We have a difference, yes. We think dissensions are important in order to proceed, but the most important is to underline that both organizations are doing [their] best in order to give concrete and important steps toward democracy and protection of human rights."

Burma is a late-joiner to ASEAN. It was admitted in 1997, when its neighbors thought that integration rather than isolation would bring about political reform in the country.

With its ruined economy and harsh military rule, however, Burma is starkly different from its ASEAN counterparts, most of which have undertaken democratic reforms and have fast-growing economies.

Despite these differences, ASEAN this week rebuffed calls by the United States and other Western nations to threaten Burma with expulsion if it does not undertake meaningful democratic reforms.

U.S. officials and some analysts say that approach may hurt the organization's credibility.