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ASEAN speaks out on Suu Kyi


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A group of Filipino protesters rallies in front of Myanmar's embassy in Manila on Tuesday.

BANGKOK - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Tuesday expressed "grave concern" but ruled out sanctions in its first official reaction to the trial of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The regional bloc, which rarely speaks out on the domestic political issues of its 10 members, issued a statement through current chair Thailand to urge the immediate release of the detained Nobel Peace laureate.

"Thailand, as the ASEAN Chair, expresses grave concern about recent developments relating to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, given her fragile health," said the statement, issued five days after the charges against her were first filed.

It also reiterated its demand for Myanmar to free Aung San Suu Kyi, who heard evidence from police on the second day of her trial for breaching her house arrest over an incident in which an American man, John Yettaw, swam to her lakeside home.

"With the eyes of the international community on Myanmar at present, the honour and the credibility of the Government of the Union of Myanmar are at stake," it added.

But Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva later said that the bloc - which has been widely criticised for failing

to take its most troublesome member to task - would not react with sanctions.

"This latest incident has triggered concern from the international community," Abhisit said.

"We want the current situation to ease off, but as members of ASEAN we have to work together constructively to solve this problem," he added.

"We hope that Myanmar will consider ASEAN members as friends. The attitude of ASEAN members is unchanged, unlike those countries far away. We have no plan to follow their stance," he said.

US President Barack Obama formally extended sanctions against Myanmar on Friday, while EU nations are mulling an increase in sanctions against the regime, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, called Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya at the weekend "to support Thailand's earlier statement that the trial should be transparent", an aide to Kasit said.

ASEAN anger

Individual ASEAN nations have issued much stronger statements about Aung San Suu Kyi's plight in recent days, with the Philippines describing the charges as "trumped up" and Indonesia calling them "arbitrary".

Meanwhile, Cambodian opposition lawmaker Son Chhay urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to engage Myanmar through diplomatic channels "to push the military leaders to stop interfering with democracy and to immediately release Aung San Suu Kyi and other politicians", according to a letter he said was sent to government leaders Tuesday.

"Cambodia's government cannot defend the junta because of its abuses against democrats," the letter said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Tuesday the government had yet to receive Son Chhay's letter.

He had said a day earlier that the government hoped Aung San Suu Kyi would escape conviction "because she has been punished already".

Aung San Suu Kyi's current six-year period of detention is due to expire on May 27, but Yettaw's visit has apparently provided the ruling generals with an excuse to consider extending her detention past polls due in 2010.

She has been under house arrest or in jail for 13 of the last 19 years.

Myanmar's junta is apparently rushing Aung San Suu Kyi's trial, a party spokesman said Tuesday as police told the court how they arrested Yettaw.

Five witnesses gave evidence  to the closed-door trial at the notorious Insein prison, including four police officers who said they had arrested Yettaw after he spent two days at her lakeside house.

"It indicates that they are trying to finish as soon as possible" by calling many witnesses, Nyan Win, the spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, told reporters.

Nyan Win said the prosecution was expected to call 22 witnesses, all but one of them policemen.

The senior officer who filed the original complaint against Aung San Suu Kyi testified on Monday.

Around 100 party members gathered outside the prison on Tuesday, including former political prisoner Win Tin.




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