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Burma Dominates Talks at Europe-Asia Foreign Ministers Meeting - 2003-07-23

Burma and the continued detention there of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is dominating the annual meeting of foreign ministers of Asia and Europe on the Indonesian island of Bali.

Asian and European foreign ministers are trying to narrow differences over how to deal with Burma's military government. At issue is the latest detention of Burma's Nobel prize-winning democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May.

The Europeans want a strong condemnation of Burma, while the Asians, who are used to low key diplomacy and persuasion behind closed doors, favor a milder approach.

While the two-day Asia-Europe meeting underway in Bali has a full agenda, finding middle ground on Burma is dominating the talks.

The rift is not just between Europe and Asia; the prime ministers of Thailand and Malaysia have differed publicly on the matter. Thailand is asking for a soft approach, but Malaysia is going so far as to suggest Burma should be expelled from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, if the opposition leader is not released.

Some common ground has been found. The Philippines foreign minister, Blas Ople, says ASEAN, which includes Burma, would send a delegation to Rangoon to seek Aung San Suu Kyi's release. The Indonesian foreign minister, Hassan Wirayuda, says he expects a joint statement calling for her freedom will be issued at the end of the meeting Thursday.

The international pressure on Burma may be forcing changes. Diplomats in Rangoon said Wednesday that at least 90 supporters of the opposition leader, who were taken with her into custody after a bloody clash on May 30, have been released.

One reason in Burma is assuming a prominent place in the discussions is a question of future membership in the Asian-European Meetings, or ASEM. Asian nations want to induct three more countries, including Burma, to balance an expanding European Union.

European ministers have refused to countenance the idea of Burma joining the meetings, until there is clear evidence of democratic change in the country.