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ASEAN Ministers Grapple with Security Issues, Burma's Human Rights Record - 2004-06-30

At an annual meeting, Southeast Asian foreign ministers have considered ways to improve regional security, particularly in fighting terrorism. Their talks, however, were overshadowed by concerns about Burma's human rights record.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri on Wednesday urged ASEAN's 10 members to speed up a security pact to battle international terrorism.

"The still unresolved nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula as well as the continuing vulnerability of the East Asian economy has become a source of our distress," she said. "On top of all these we must also be at the forefront in the fight against the most inhuman of multinational crimes - international terrorism."

The region has seen several terror attacks over the past two years, including bombs that killed more than 200 people on the Indonesia island of Bali in 2002.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda wrapped up Wednesday's meeting by saying economic and security cooperation are essential to the region.

"We have no other choice but building a strong ASEAN, if we want to overcome the challenges and seize the opportunities of our time," said Mr. Wirajuda. "For that, we have decided to transform ourselves from an association of states into a true ASEAN community, resting on three pillars - an ASEAN security community, an ASEAN Economic community, and an ASEAN socio-cultural community."

While security was high on their agenda, the foreign ministers also confronted the human rights record of Burma, one of the group's members. ASEAN's Western partners want Burma to speed political reforms and free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

Mr. Wirajuda reported that Burma's foreign minister, Win Aung, said the leader of the National League for Democracy would be allowed to take part in elections after the country drafts a new constitution. When that will be, however, is not clear.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been under detention for more than a year. Although her party won elections in 1990 by a landslide, the military government never allowed it to take power.

A joint statement at the end of the ASEAN meeting, however, did not directly criticize Burma's rights record. Instead, it urged all parties in Burma to continue efforts to bring about democracy.

On Thursday, ASEAN ministers will hold talks with officials from South Korea, Japan, China and several other nations. On Friday, foreign ministers from more than 14 other nations, including the United States, will attend a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum.