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Malaysian PM Ties Burma's Membership to ASEAN to Release of Opposition Leader - 2003-07-21

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has surprised many Southeast Asian nations with reported comments on Burma. Mr. Mahathir told the AFP news agency on Sunday that Burma could face expulsion from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations if democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is not released.

Malaysia's prime minister has never been shy about making his views known. He caught many observers off guard with his comment that Burma could, as a last resort, be expelled from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

Mahathir Mohamad emphasized that such a move would only come if all other attempts to persuade Burma's rulers to release Aung San Suu Kyi failed. Nevertheless, it was the first time any ASEAN leader has raised the possibility of expulsion.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa would not comment directly on the issue of expulsion, saying Indonesia, as current chair of ASEAN, could not take a position. But he added that Mr. Mahathir's comments are important.

"Well, it's an important statement by an important state of Southeast Asia," said Mr. Natalegawa. "Obviously, it is a statement made with the benefit of the information that we have just now, that things are really not making much progress in Myanmar vis-ŕ-vis the detention of Miss Aung San Suu Kyi."

Officials in neighboring Thailand distanced themselves from Mr. Mahathir's comments, saying he had only expressed his private view. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said Burma's rulers must have more time to, as he put it, prove themselves. Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathiraithai said he did not think it would come to expulsion.

Thai officials speak of what they call a "road map" to reconciliation in Burma, which they have presented to the generals in Rangoon. But details of the plan have not been released.

Ronald May, a professor of political and social change at the Australian National University, says Mr. Mahathir's comment was all the more surprising, as it came from the man who was key in getting Burma into ASEAN in 1997, in the face of much international criticism.

"But I guess he's also got an eye to the standing of ASEAN on this," he explained. "And I think that what he's consistent on is having strong views. And I think he's probably got to the point where he feels that what's happened in Burma of late is going to be an embarrassment to ASEAN."

Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained since a clash between her supporters and a government-backed mob on May 30. The military government has since claimed her followers were plotting violent rebellion, a claim the followers vehemently deny.

Her detention has sparked international outrage, including new economic sanctions from the United States and an unprecedented public call by ASEAN states for her release.