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ASEAN Urges Burma to Release Pro-Democracy Leader - 2003-06-16

Foreign ministers of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have urged the government of Burma to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as soon as possible, indicating that her detention two weeks ago is tarnishing the image of the regional body.

ASEAN foreign ministers, breaking with a longstanding tradition of not commenting on the internal affairs of a member nation, have urged Burma's military government to free Aung San Suu Kyi and take steps toward national reconciliation. Secretary General Ong Keng Yung told reporters that the Burmese delegation was told the ASEAN ministers want to see an easing of tensions in Burma.

Sources at the meeting say one delegation called the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi a setback to the organization. Another said ASEAN's policy of engaging Burma in the hopes of encourage political liberalization needs to show results.

The Cambodian Foreign Ministry's permanent secretary, Chem Widhya, called it a very frank dialogue. "It is the very first time that we talk openly about each other's concern, and this is not only at the ministers' level, but at our own senior officials' level," said the official. "And I think that this is a show of political maturity within ASEAN, the readiness to go right to the business."

Burma's foreign minister, Win Aung, is reported to have responded by saying that his government is concerned about the international criticism, and is seeking a way out of the crisis. Mr. Win Aung earlier told reporters that Aung San Suu Kyi was taken into custody in order to protect her from would-be assassins.

"What [will] happen to her will be blamed on us," Win Aung said. "So, that's why we are protecting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for the time being. When the time, if the situation become clearer later, you know, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be free again of course."

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen opened the forum Monday, saying ASEAN must respond vigorously to terrorist threats in the region, and take firm and coordinated measures to maintain public security.

His remarks come amid signs that the terrorist threat in the region is broadening. Only days earlier, security forces said they uncovered terrorist plots in Cambodia and Thailand for the first time, and for the first time, detained Thai and Cambodian nationals as terrorist suspects.

The ASEAN Forum is also to discuss tensions on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea's foreign minister was due to attend the conference, but withdrew at the last minute.