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Burma Pledges to Move Toward Democracy - 2003-10-08

After months of pressing Burma to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and pursue political reform, Southeast Asian leaders chose not to make on issue of it at their annual summit. Instead, leaders of ASEAN - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - welcomed a pledge by the Burmese military government to move toward democracy.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri says the 10 members of ASEAN believe Burma's recent unveiling of a road map to democracy is a step in the right direction. "We welcome the recent positive developments in Myanmar [Burma] and the government's pledge to bring about a transition to democracy, to dialogue and reconciliation."

And with that, ASEAN leaders, in effect, signaled they were suspending rising criticism of Burma's military government for a crackdown four months ago that included the detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and senior leaders of her National League for Democracy party.

Following the crackdown, ASEAN for the first time publicly urged the Burmese government to show progress toward reform. In the past two weeks, the Burmese government has moved Aung San Suu Kyi from detention at an undisclosed location to her home. But she is not allowed to leave or freely receive visitors.

Burma also unveiled a road map to democracy - which would include a new constitution and elections. But Burma's leaders have not given a timetable for the plan nor said if it the opposition would be included in the process.

A spokesman for the Indonesian government, Marty Natalegawa, denies the ASEAN has retreated on Burma - also known as Myanmar. He says ASEAN leaders see the broader picture of what the road map signals. "It signals to us that Myanmar is committed to begin this road map leading to democracy and reconciliation," he says. "And this has to be, I think, acknowledged."

Mr. Natalegawa said time will tell whether the Burmese leaders are sincere.

Observers say ASEAN leaders decided to give Burma more time because of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt's recent appointment. General Khin Nyunt, the head of military intelligence, is viewed as the leading moderate in the military leadership.

But not all Asian leaders are pleased with the ASEAN statement on Burma. The Philippines and Japan indicate they will continue to press the Burmese government for political reform, at least on the bilateral level.

Philippines Foreign Minister Blas Ople says the ASEAN statement on Burma was not strong enough.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reportedly pressed for reform during a meeting with the Burmese prime minister. His spokesman, Jiro Okuyama, told reporters Japan is watching the road map for signs of progress. "At the same time, we are interested to know why this road map lacks a specific time frame and why this road map lacks any reference to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," he says.

ASEAN sources are quoted as saying Prime Minister Khin Nyunt told the Mr. Koizumi that Burma is doing its best to build a democratic system, and this is more important than any single individual or organization.