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Ministers confront Myanmar

Ministers confront Myanmar


ASEAN leaders say treatment of Suu Kyi hurting bloc's image.

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Protesters call for release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the Myanmar embassy Wednesday in Phnom Penh. 

SOUTHEAST Asian ministers Wednesday called out Myanmar over its treatment of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a senior regional minister said  at the start of a meeting of ASEAN and EU foreign ministers at Chaktomuk Conference Hall.

The confrontation came as  activists made fresh demands for the release of the democracy icon, whose trial for violating the conditions of her house arrest has sparked international outrage.

"The discussion in the room back there was that [the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners]... affects ASEAN's image and ASEAN's collective interests," said Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the 10-member group.

"Yesterday, they issued a joint statement referring to the issue - I don't think it will be left at that tomorrow," he added, referring to a statement issued Tuesday in Hanoi by Asian and European Union (EU) ministers.

Meanwhile, students, civil society activists and Myanmar expatriates protested Wednesday morning in front of the Myanmar embassy in Phnom Penh, urging EU and ASEAN ministers to pressure the junta over the Nobel laureate.

"We hope that ... with all the mobilisation of the rest of the world and all the international statements calling for her release, the government of Myanmar will finally release her," said Kek Galabru, president of Cambodian rights group Licadho.

"This is a small action from civil society to support her and show her our solidarity."

The spokesman for a small group of Myanmar protesters, who declined to be named, said EU and ASEAN leaders were in a good position to pressure Myanmar's leaders for reform.

"I feel that the Burmese government is abusing the law [in] trying to put Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on trial," the spokesman said. "That's why we are coming out, to ask for her release and the immediate cessation of the trial."

In addition to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Win Kyaw - another Myanmar protester - called for the amnesty of other political dissidents languishing in Myanmar jails.

The protest, which began at 7:30am in front of the embassy on Norodom Boulevard, was attended by a strong police presence, and a black-clad security guard from the embassy roamed the crowd snapping photos of the participants.

"It's always the way they react," said the Myanmar protesters' spokesman. "They are underhanded and they will try to crack down on opposition activists."

The event came as delegations from 37 European and Asian countries arrived in Phnom Penh for the 17th EU-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, which winds up today.

The summit is scheduled to address climate change, counterterrorism and the global financial crisis, but  has been used to focus attentions on other issues.

The Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, a local rights group, issued calls Wednesday for EU and ASEAN delegates to discuss human rights violations against Vietnam's Khmer minority.

The meeting, however, has become a lightning rod for international protests against Myanmar's ruling junta, which has kept Aung San Suu Kyi in detention for 13 of the last 19 years.

She now faces up to five years in prison on charges she broke the terms of her house arrest, following an incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside home in Yangon. Her previous term of house arrest was due to expire Wednesday.

Mounting pressure

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the Aung San Suu Kyi issue may again be raised on the sidelines of the summit today, but remains off the official agenda.

"I can't speculate on what is going to happen [today]."

But one delegate said that the issue would indeed come up in discussions.

"We will be emphasising human rights at the meetings, especially on collectively putting pressure on the [Myanmar] government," Bill Rammell, a British parliamentarian and minister of state at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told the Post. "We welcome Thailand's recent statements on Suu Kyi's release," he said.

David Mathieson, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in northern Thailand, said, however, that ASEAN's track record on dealing with Myanmar's human rights abuses did not give him much hope of a positive outcome.

"We've been here so many times," he said by phone from the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot.  

"I'd like to think that given the current situation, ASEAN would act appropriately and with conviction. [But] looking at the history of ASEAN's engagement with Burma, there's very little hope it will get its act together."

But he said that international criticism of the Aung San Suu Kyi trial - just the latest in a "litany of embarrassments" the country has brought on ASEAN - could encourage it to apply the neglected human rights provisions in the organisation's charter.

"With Suu Kyi, you have an issue that is not just an issue for Southeast Asia - it's a global issue. ASEAN's international reputation also depends on how they deal with this," he said.

Yettaw takes the stand

In Yangon, American John Yettaw, taking the stand  Wednesday for the first time, told the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi that he swam to the Myanmar democracy icon's home to warn her of a divine vision about a "terrorist" plot to assassinate her, her party said.

"Yettaw said he came here because God asked him to," said Nyan Win, who is also on her legal team and was in court Wednesday for the closed hearing at Insein prison in Yangon.



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