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ASEAN Meeting Urges Lifting of Burma Economic Sanctions

ASEAN FMs, (L-R) Indonesia's Marty Natalegawa, Thailand's Kasit Piromya, Singapore's George Yeo and Philippines' Undersecretary for Policy Erlinda Basilio before the opening of the ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting Retreat in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara pr

Foreign ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) say economic sanctions against Burma should be lifted now that the military has held national elections and released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. But rights groups say lifting sanctions may be premature.

ASEAN foreign ministers, meeting in Indonesia, called for the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia, to review the sanctions imposed on Burma to press the military government to implement political and economic reforms.

The foreign ministers, led by Thailand and Indonesia, also urged Burma’s military to press ahead with efforts to reconcile with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's political opposition.

The U.S. sanctions include a ban on imports, as well as restrictions on financial transactions and foreign investment in Burma. The European Union has also had a series of sanctions in place for several years.

The ministers say the elections and release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house detention should be taken into account.

The managing partner of regional investment fund Leopard Capital, U.S. businessman Douglas Clayton, says sanctions would reopen the way for foreign investment into the country.

"We would like to see the U.S. lift its sanctions, which would be a catalytic step towards facilitating foreign investment, because at the moment multi-nationals are unable to deal there. They have problems if they deal there," said Clayton.

Debate over sanctions has been divisive. Some analysts say the sanctions have failed to end the military’s grip on power and have caused massive unemployment.

Meanwhile China, Thailand and India have remained key foreign investors in the country.

A spokeswoman for the rights group Alternative ASEAN Network, Debbie Stothardt, says lifting sanctions is premature, especially while the military still holds more than 2,000 political prisoners in detention.

"It is incredibly naïve and illogical for ASEAN to be calling on the international community to remove sanctions on Burma," said Stothardt. "ASEAN should instead be calling for the military authorities and the so-called new parliament of Burma to cooperate in an international investigation of crimes against humanity and serious crimes in Burma instead."

Rights groups raised doubts over the legitimacy of last November’s general election following allegations of fraud, and concerns over restricting participation by some opposition political parties.

Political groups close to the military secured almost 80 percent of the votes and seats in the national parliament, with a quota of 25 percent of the seats already set aside for military personnel.

ASEAN foreign ministers are to send a delegation to Burma in late January to meet representatives of the new parliament and raise the issue of the status of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.