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Foreign Ministers Conclude ASEAN Summit - 2003-06-17


Southeast Asian foreign ministers have ended a two-day meeting in Cambodia, formally asking the military government of Burma to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition politicians. The decision to press Burma breaks with the policy of non-interference long held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.

ASEAN foreign ministers Tuesday welcomed Burmese government assurances that the detention of the top leaders of the National League for Democracy party are temporary.

But in a joint statement, the ministers formally called for the release of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and urged the military government to resume the dialogue with the opposition on a peaceful transition to democracy in Burma - also known as Myanmar.

Meeting chairman and Cambodian foreign minister, Hor Namhong, called the ASEAN discussions very frank and acknowledged they departed from tradition. But he says ASEAN remains committed to the principle of non-interference in its members internal affairs.

"We had a very comfortable atmosphere on discussion on the Myanmar situation," says Mr. Namhong. "And the Myanmar foreign minister listened very carefully to what his colleagues said yesterday. And he promised to make a report to the leaders of Myanmar. So I think it is already a step forward."

ASEAN has been criticized for not responding more vigorously to the crackdown two weeks ago on the NLD, following a clash with pro-government supporters. The Burmese government says the measures will be lifted when the situation stabilizes, but critics say the government has become nervous over the continued popularity of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The United States and the European Union, which join the ASEAN ministers Wednesday, are threatening more sanctions against Burma and say they will press ASEAN to be more critical of Burma.

Mr. Namhong also noted that ASEAN ministers expressed anxiety over tensions on the Korean Peninsula, due to North Korea's nuclear program. "We reaffirmed our conviction that a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula would be a major contribution to regional peace and stability."

The Cambodian diplomat says ASEAN continues to support dialogue between North Korea, China and the United States and expressed regret over the last-minute withdrawal of North Korea's foreign minister from the ASEAN meeting.

The ministers reiterated their condemnation of terrorism. In a reference to recent arrests and reports of foiled terrorist attacks, they noted there have been some successes in the fight against terrorism. But they added that they must maintain vigilance and strengthen cooperation.

The ASEAN leaders are broadening their consultations Wednesday to include foreign ministers from north and south Asia as well as ministers from Europe, North America, and Russia.