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ASEAN Facing Credibility Test Over Pressing Burma on Political Reform

As the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prepare for their annual summit in the Philippines this month, they must confront the problem of Burma. ASEAN is under increasing pressure to demand that Burma improve its human rights record and move toward democracy. But as Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, analysts expect little real progress in persuading Burma's military government to ease its grip on power.

For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Burma is an increasingly difficult issue, as international pressure mounts against its government.

But Burma's military, in power for over 40 years, shows no sign of allowing major political reform.

And ASEAN states are divided over Burma, which joined the group in 1997. Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand have pressed Burma to speed up reforms. Others, such as Vietnam and Laos, both one-party states, are more reticent to push for change.

Thailand's Interim Prime Minister, Surayud Chulanont, a retired general, says Burma's military needs to set a clear time frame on political reform. The Thai interim government, installed after a bloodless coup in September, says it will hold national elections by the end of 2007.

"For Thailand, we have a timeline to draft our new constitution and move on the path to democracy, but for the Burmese we don't see any indications on the timeline yet so we have to be very careful," he said.

Mr. Surayud has said that Burma's reform program will be raised during the ASEAN leaders' summit in the Philippines on December 11.

Three years ago, Burma's government announced a plan of gradual changes eventually leading to elections. But so far only modest progress has been seen, and the national convention drafting a new constitution has yet to complete its task.

The U.S. and European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Burma and called on it to improve human rights and release political prisoners, especially opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In September Burma was listed for debate at the U.N. Security Council.

"Given the upcoming possible action in the U.N. Security Council, ASEAN's common credibility is now at risk because if Burma cannot improve its behavior in the near future the entire ASEAN community will have to face growing pressure from the international community as well," said Sunai Pasuk, a Thai representative for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. He thinks the U.N. debate will add pressure on ASEAN.

Despite international protests, ASEAN allowed Burma to join, and the group's officials argued that membership would encourage reform.

Instead, the Burmese government continues to detain most opposition leaders and has toughened controls on international aid organizations.

The Global Fund against AIDS and tuberculosis last year withdrew its support for programs in Burma because the government restricted its movements.

In November, the International Committee for the Red Cross said it was ordered to close five offices working in Burma's border regions. The ICRC spokesman in Rangoon, Terry Ribeax, says the Red Cross also was barred from visiting prisons.

"It was told to us that detention visits would no longer be allowed," Ribeaux said. "The ICRC was not allowed to carry out detention visits all over 2006. And you know we knew that the work we were doing had a positive impact on the condition of the detainees."

Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for the Alternative ASEAN Network, thinks the group may gain some leverage over Burma. ASEAN is preparing a new charter, which among other things, is expected to call for promoting democracy and protecting human rights.

"For most human rights activists in ASEAN we're counting on the fact that the discussions on the ASEAN charter will be an opportunity to ensure that Burma is very much high up on the agenda," she said.

A Burmese pro-democracy advocate, Naing Aung, from the Asian Network for Free Elections, notes that while ASEAN will not press very hard on Burma, it did not stand in the way of this year's debate at the United Nations.

"It is hard to expect that ASEAN will be more actively involved in solving the Burmese problem," he said. "But (ASEAN) are not giving any protection to Burma in terms of the United Nations level. They no longer protect Burma anymore."

Several experts say that ASEAN leaders are not likely to push publicly on Burma at their annual summit, being held in the Philippines.

What is more, the analysts fear that rising international pressure, especially from the West, will drive Burma closer to China. Burma does considerable trade with China - selling timber and other natural resources that China's booming economy needs.

Experts say that as long as China trades with Burma, the military government may be able to withstand pressure to change for years.