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Burmese Leaders Begin Three-Nation Tour - 2004-08-09

Burma's senior leaders, including Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, have kicked off a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia with talks in Hanoi. The visit comes amid a standoff between Southeast Asian nations and Europe, which is critical of Burma's human rights record.

Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt met with Vietnam's prime minister, Phan Van Khai, as part of a tour that includes Laos and Cambodia. While there were no details from the talks Monday, Vietnam Foreign Ministry officials say issues of mutual concern were discussed.

Many political observers have said the agenda probably included a dispute between Southeast Asian nations and the European Union. European leaders want to block Burma from attending the Asia-Europe Meeting - or ASEM - in Hanoi in October, unless it makes political reforms and releases opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has called for all three new ASEAN members - Burma, Laos and Cambodia - to attend the summit. Asian nations are threatening to block the 10 newest European Union members from ASEM, unless all ASEAN states are present.

The impasse has already led to the cancellation of an ASEM finance ministers meeting. A foreign ministers meeting scheduled in early September remains under threat.

Debbie Stothardt is the spokeswoman for the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma. She says the pressure is likely to increase on Burma's military government to release Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the National League for Democracy Party.

Ms. Stothardt says all sides should look for a compromise. "Vietnam as the host will be very anxious that the ASEM proceeds as smoothly as possible, without much controversy, so the pressure will be on all sides to actually come to some sort of compromise," she says.

Some western diplomats in Hanoi say the two sides still hope to find an agreement on the ASEM summit. But the diplomats added that the European Union is unwilling to withdraw its demand that all EU nations attend.

One comprise would allow Burma to attend, but send only junior-level officials.

ASEAN countries have sought to gently press Burma's government toward political reforms, although, historically, the group is reluctant to interfere in the internal politics of its members.