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Asean ministers do not seem interested in solving region's problems. The Irrawaddy.

All talk, no traction

Report from The Irrawaddy:

International gatherings like the ones held on the Thai resort island of Phuket last week are seldom much more than talk shops. The ministers who attended the Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) went there to be seen and heard, not to solve any of the region’s problems.

That’s why no one was particularly surprised or disappointed that there were no great breakthroughs in resolving the perennial problems of Burma and North Korea, which, as expected, dominated discussions at the high-level meetings.

As usual, ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) reiterated their call for Burma to release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and pave the way for national reconciliation through “inclusive” general elections in 2010.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda acknowledged, however, that the Burmese regime was unlikely to budge much under pressure. The junta, he said, changes “too slowly and often a little change at a time.”

But this did not prevent his Thai counterpart, Kasit Piromya, from offering to facilitate the process of change. “Asean as well as members of the ARF would like to work with Myanmar [Burma] and are ready to assist Myanmar in its efforts to promote democracy, human rights and well-being among her people,” he said.

In his capacity as chairman of the 16th Asean Regional Forum, Kasit added that the Burmese foreign minister had been asked “to convey this sentiment to the Myanmar leadership. It is hoped that Myanmar will be responsive to the international community’s concerns.”

At least one person—Vitavas Srivihok, the director-general of the Asean-Thailand office of Thailand’s ministry of foreign affairs—seemed to think that Asean’s message would get a receptive hearing in Naypyidaw.

He told reporters, “The first time I saw Myanmar’s reaction, I thought it was very positive…. They fully understand and appreciate the offers of help by Asean colleagues.

Meanwhile, others were asking what Asean might do if Burma does not comply with calls for reform. Although no clear answer to that question emerged, at least one option—throwing Burma out of the regional grouping—was ruled out as a possibility.

“There are not enough grounds to do that,” Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in response to a comment made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who suggested that expulsion should be considered if the Burmese regime continues to flout Asean’s rules.

“We have already done what we can under the Asean mechanism,” said Abhisit. “If Burma is expelled it will further isolate the regime, and would that solve the problem?”

Clinton, for her part, seemed prepared to take strong action, although she did not specify what form it might take. When she arrived in Thailand, she immediately made it clear that her government was not taking the latest developments in Burma lightly.

“We know that there are also growing concerns about military cooperation between North Korea and Burma, which we take very seriously. It would be destabilizing for the region,” she said. “It would pose a direct threat to Burma’s neighbors. And it is something, as a treaty ally of Thailand, we are taking very seriously.”

The next day, however, she struck a very different note, holding out the possibility of a fundamental shift in US-Burma relations in exchange for the release of Aung san Suu Kyi.

“If she were released, that would open up opportunities, at least for my country, to expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma. But it is up to the Burmese leadership,” Clinton said.

This was followed by a rare meeting between US and Burmese officials on the sidelines of the ARF. The American delegation again urged the Burmese leadership to review its treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and also asked Burma to cooperate with UN sanctions on North Korea.

The Burmese said they would respect the UN resolution imposing a strengthened arms embargo on Pyongyang—a wise move that will probably win the regime some support in Washington.

Clinton said she was “gratified by Burma’s statement and those of many other countries announcing an intension to implement the UN resolution.… Burma’s statement is significant because in the past, North Korea has provided Burma with materials now barred by Resolution 1874.”

Despite the Burmese regime’s claims that it is willing to cooperate with the UN, it has often allowed North Korean ships to dock in Rangoon to deliver ammunition and weapons.

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In April, while speaking in the United States, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr George Yeo, said:

“"Unfortunately, ASEAN today looks a little patchy... The last summit that was held in Pattaya was disrupted in a manner which caused us, in ASEAN, great humiliation." (Channel NewsAsia)

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