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ASEAN Politicians Say Summit Will Test Burma Human Rights Policy

A group of Southeast Asian politicians promoting human rights and justice in Burma say this week's ASEAN summit on political reform in Burma will be a vital test for the 10-member group.

The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Burma says that country's human rights record and steps to political reform should be foremost on the agenda for the Association of South East Asian Nations summit that begins Friday.

Philippine Parliamentary Human Rights Committee Chairman Lorenzo Tanada says how ASEAN leaders approach the issue will test the organization's international standing.

"The integrity of the organization is put into question if nothing is done with regard to Burma, especially with the 2010 elections coming around the corner," he said. "We know for a fact that these elections will be used by the junta to legitimatize itself."

The inter-parliamentary caucus has strongly advocated political and human rights reform in Burma, adding to the international pressure on that country, which is also known as Myanmar. However, the summit is expected to focus mainly on the global economic crisis.

ASEAN has faced criticism from inside and outside Southeast Asia for not putting more pressure on Burma to reform since it joined the regional body in 1997.

But a major step came with an ASEAN charter - adopted in December by all 10 member states, including Burma - setting out provisions addressing human rights.

Thai government representative Buranat Samutrak says he is confident the key elements to promote change in Burma are in place, especially the charter.

"I think at this point it cannot be a more opportune moment to see these collective results by representatives met by collective action by leaders and governments," he said.

Burma government-in-exile representative, Teddy Buri, says the pressure against the government, known as the State Peace and Development Council or SPDC, is leading to change. But Buri says ASEAN also has to take a united stand on Burma.

"The fact that they plan the 2010 elections is because of the pressure," he said. "In other words the SPDC is really feeling the pinch. Maybe we will have to start with ASEAN itself to speak in one voice, to work in a concerted manner and then to get the international key players to work together."

The 2010 elections are part of the military government's so-called road map to democracy that had earlier included drafting a new constitution.

Malaysian Parliament Member Nurul Izzah Anwar says Burma's government needs to be held accountable.

"Of course in ASEAN it sounds very nice to have elections at long last in Myanmar, but it does not negate the wrong that they have committed and continue to commit," he said. "So I believe the program we have had today is a beginning of how to right the wrong."

Human rights advocates fear the 2010 elections will not be "free and fair" and just a way for the military to extend its power. Burma's military government has ruled since 1988.

Rights group Amnesty International is also pressing ASEAN to ensure human rights are at the top of the summit's agenda. This week the military released 24 political prisoners, but rights groups say more than 2,100 political prisoners remain in jail.