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Asian Leaders Reconsider Burma Policy Following Arrest of Pro-Democracy Leader - 2003-06-04

International concern is mounting over Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and dozens of senior opposition party leaders who were detained five days ago in a government crackdown. Some Asian leaders are calling for governments to review their policy of engaging Burma in order to encourage political reform.

The Chairman of Thailand's Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Kraisak Choonavan says the crackdown in Burma shows that Asia's policies toward the Burmese military government have not worked. Senator Kraisak says Asian governments should review their relations with Burma and ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, should reconsider its decision to admit Burma six years ago.

"How can ASEAN even exist, in fact, when the year 2006 comes around and it's Burma's turn to become chairman of ASEAN?" he asked.

Concern is growing about the condition of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and senior leaders of her opposition National League for Democracy party. They were detained Friday after a clash in northern Burma.

The military government says four people were killed and more than 50 wounded. However, human rights groups and exiled dissidents quote eyewitnesses as saying government sympathizers instigated the clash and the casualty figures are much higher.

A senior Burmese official has told diplomats in Rangoon that Aung San Suu Kyi was not harmed, in response to reports that she was wounded in the incident.

United Nations special envoy, Razali Ismail, is due to travel to Rangoon Friday to try to revive stalled talks between the government and the NLD on a possible political transition to democracy. He has indicated he wants to proceed with the visit but wants assurances he will be allowed to see Aung San Suu Kyi.

The United Nations has expressed concern over the crackdown and Western governments have sharply criticized the move.

In Asia, however, criticism has come mainly from Japan and Thailand. The secretary-general of ASEAN says his organization will ask Burma about the situation.

A spokesman for the Forum-Asia human rights group, Sunai Phasuk, says ASEAN needs to reform its policies.

"Until today ASEAN has taken a no-action policy on Burma, saying that what's happening in Burma is only domestic affairs, which is wrong," he noted. " Political turbulence in Burma can cause turbulence in the region, especially in Thailand, which of course involves border unrest and the influx of refugees."

Observers note that Asian governments have fostered friendly relations with Burma in order to promote trade ties. But they also note that any change in Asian policy toward Burma will need support from China.

China is keen to open up a trade route from its southwestern Yunnan Province to the Indian Ocean. It backs the Burmese government and is involved in major road and river development projects.

ASEAN governments, which are already concerned about the flight of foreign investors from their countries to China, are reluctant to downgrade their ties with Burma. They say the military government in Rangoon has shown it is willing to weather international condemnation in order to control domestic political activities that it considers to be a threat to stability.