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ASEAN Leaders Push for Dropping Sanctions on Burma

Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN Foreign Ministers from left, K. Shanmugam of Singapore, Surapong Tovichakchaikul of Thailand, Pham Bihn Minh of Vietnam, Hor Namhong of Cambodia and Lim Jock Seng of Brunei wait for their counterpart from M

Southeast Asian leaders say the international community must lift economic sanctions on Burma. Heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asia Nations are meeting .

This week's ASEAN summit has been the first opportunity for regional leaders to discuss political developments in Burma following Sunday's highly anticipated by-elections.

The 10-member regional bloc sent monitors to observe the vote. ASEAN has yet to release its official position on the outcome of the election, but prominent politicians are striking a distinctly cheerful tone.

Marty Natalegawa is Indonesia's foreign minister. He says ASEAN believes longstanding economic sanctions against the country should be lifted. "If not now, when? That's the question. It has been for some time an instrument to register protest. An instrument to try and influence events. Events are changing. and it's very important to lock this process in," he said.

Natalegawa says it is important that the international community send a positive signal that may encourage further democratization in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"We need a democratic dividend in Myanmar. Things are happening. The international community must create a sense of inevitability, a sense of irreversibility. I think having these sanctions lifted would send a very powerful signal that things are changing," stated Natalegawa. "ASEAN has continuously spoken of lifting sanctions. But now more than ever. It's very timely."

Burma has won cautious praise from the United Nations and western nations for significant reforms over the last year, including releasing several hundred political prisoners, easing restrictions on media and holding Sunday's by-election. But it remains unclear just how far the country’s former military leaders are willing to go in expanding liberties and relinquishing their tight hold on power.

Rights groups say egregious human rights violations, particularly amid multiple armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas, remain deeply worrisome.

For ASEAN leaders, however, the reforms have been a welcome development, giving the bloc the opportunity to recast one of its most troubled member states in a more flattering light.

Larry Jagan is an analyst on Burma.

"I think it's very noticeable that the ASEAN leaders and foreign ministers were very smug after the election results. Many of them are saying 'We actually pushed Burma towards democracy'. They're taking credit for the changes that are taking place and the successful by-elections. I think to some extent, Burma has been an embarrassment in the past, and now it's a shining success," noted Jagan. "So I think, that as far as ASEAN is concerned, and as far as most of the countries of the region are concerned, this is great news."

ASEAN leaders are also discussing tensions over the South China Sea and steps to increase economic integration in the summit that lasts through Wednesday.