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ASEAN Foreign Ministers Urge Burma to Hold Credible Elections

Southeast Asian nations have urged Burma to hold free and fair elections during polls expected this year. The call for credible elections came as ministers begin a week of security meetings in Vietnam that will include Asia-Pacific and Western nations.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told journalists that during a dinner Monday diplomats made it clear that elections should be credible in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"Last night, I think Myanmar has an earful of willingness and the desire of all the ASEAN countries to see that the elections will lead to normalcy, real reconciliation," said Surin.

Surin says ASEAN countries also offered to support the election process in Burma, which is a member of the group.

"If there is any way that ASEAN can help, can contribute, members of ASEAN can help and contribute, they would be willing to," added Surin. "Because, it is crucial to the region, to ASEAN itself, and to Myanmar itself that the elections are credible."

Burma's military government has not yet announced a date for the elections, the first in two decades. Critics dismiss the polls as a sham designed to keep the military in power.

But Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo expressed optimism that elections could bring about some gradual change.

"We do not see a sharp break from what it is today, but we see an important turning, which will lead Myanmar into a different situation, constitutional government and one which will have a more open economy," said Yeo.

ASEAN is holding an annual ministerial-level security meeting in Hanoi. The other ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

The ministers agreed that Russia and the United States should have greater involvement through meetings known as the East Asia Summit. But Surin says they cautioned the agenda should remain under ASEAN control.

"They believe that the interest of the U.S. and Russia is something to be welcomed," noted Surin. "They also task the… senior officials to go through various implications, reservations, and concerns more carefully before they [make recommendations] to the leaders in October."

The East Asia Summit groups ASEAN countries with Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

On Friday, ASEAN ministers will meet with counterparts from all those nations, the European Union and eight countries that include North Korea. Concerns about tensions between North and South Korea are expected to be high on the agenda.

South Korea blames the North for sinking a ship in March that killed 46 sailors. North Korea denies it was responsible.