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ASEAN Meeting Opens in Burma

ASEAN Foreign Ministers and ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh, of Vietnam, pose for group photos at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) retreat in the ancient city of Pagan, Burma, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014.
Foreign ministers and representatives from across Southeast Asia have begun talks in Burma, also known as Myanmar, in the first high-level ASEAN meeting held in the country since the former pariah state joined the grouping in 1997.

In his opening remarks in the ancient city of Pagan, Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin stressed the importance of strengthening relations with its strategic partners, China and India, in order to achieve a planned ASEAN economic community by 2015.

Burmese presidential spokesman Ye Htut told reporters Thursday that Burma's policy of mutual understanding with China is a strength in solving regional problems, including the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The ASEAN nations of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia are each involved in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told reporters Thursday that his country will also act fairly towards the United States, which has said it does not take a position on the sovereignty disputes, but has consistently criticized Chinese moves it calls aggressive.

Burma's role chairing ASEAN follows political reforms that have led to the lifting of most international sanctions.

Thein Sein's government has won praise for freeing hundreds of political prisoners, lifting censorship laws and holding elections in which many opposition members won seats in parliament.

However, critics say that the country has still not done enough, pointing to continuing sectarian violence against Muslims and the country's remaining political prisoners.

Burma, which joined ASEAN in 1997, was passed over for the chairmanship in 2006.