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Suu Kyi tops ministers' talks

Suu Kyi tops ministers' talks


Junta rejects outside pressure during ASEAN-EU meeting.

Photo by:
Heng Chivoan

ASEAN and EU delegates, including Myanmar's Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint (third from left), at the end of their meeting Thursday. 

DEFYING a rising tide of criticism, Myanmar's deputy foreign minister on Thursday firmly rejected international calls to secure the release of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, an issue that dominated the agenda of the 17th ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting.

"We are a sovereign country, and we reject interference," Myanmar's Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint told the Post at the meeting at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall.

"We don't accept pressure and interference from abroad," he said in a separate statement to the conference that was mistakenly broadcast to reporters.

His comments came as Asian and European foreign ministers urged Myanmar to free all political prisoners.

Delegates  said the issue loomed over the two days of wide-ranging talks.

"We are still deeply concerned about Mrs Suu Kyi's detention," said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.

"She should be released immediately, and the Burmese government must enter dialogue with all political parties," he added, using the military-ruled country's former name.

The meetings concluded with a joint ASEAN-EU statement calling on Myanmar to grant early release to all political prisoners and lift restrictions on political parties.

Suu Kyi could face up to five years in prison if convicted of violating the conditions of her house arrest after American John Yettaw swam to her lakeside home earlier this month.

Delegates at the closed-door meetings said discussions focused on the controversy surrounding Suu Kyi's detention and the country's poor human rights record.

A senior European delegate who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue called for an end to military rule in Myanmar.

"We think [Suu Kyi] should be freed and that elections should be held, and whoever wins should govern.... The Burma issue is really dominating the discussions," the delegate told the Post.

At the close of the talks, a declaration was made on the accession of the EU and EC to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, but two high-level delegates said Myanmar rejected some aspects of the declaration that came out of the summit.

"Burma has been a very contentious issue at the talks, and the Burmese were not happy that they were being put on the spot.... They demanded that their objections be noted in the final declaration," said a senior ASEAN diplomat, asking not to be named.

A senior EU diplomat who also requested anonymity confirmed that "the Burmese delegates did not agree to some parts of the declaration".

But at the signing ceremony that closed the summit, Jan Kohout, foreign minister of the Czech Republic and the deputy director general for external relations of the European Union, downplayed any disagreements.

"[The agreement] paves the way for mutual cooperation between ASEAN and the EU."

He added: "[The Burmese] had some issues with the selection of the UN envoy, and those were noted, but the parties reached a consensus," he told the Post, in response to a question about the allegation of Burmese objections to the declaration.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan was upbeat about the talks. "[Suu Kyi's detention] is a serious issue of discussion, but it's not a serious barrier," he told the Post.

But some delegates said Aung San Suu Kyi was crucial to the wider issue of a free and democratic Myanmar.

"I find it borderline amusing when I hear speeches that Suu Kyi has violated her house arrest.... I want to see a Burma that is free," Finland's Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb told reporters.

Michael Zimer-Johns, Denmark's state secretary for foreign policy said: "In the world today, issues such as [the Suu Kyi detention] cannot be treated as an internal issue," he told reporters at the summit.

"The release of Suu Kyi and a political process is key."

Witness takes stand

In Yangon Thursday, Judges finished questioning legal expert Kyi Win, the only witness for the defence, said Nyan Win, National League for Democracy spokesman and member of Aung San Suu Kyi's legal team, adding that it was not yet clear when a verdict would be reached.

The court had barred three out of four defence witnesses, including the detained deputy chairman of the NLD, Tin Oo, and Myanmar's former longest-serving prisoner, Win Tin, who was freed in September, he said.

Outside the court, security officials arrested a lone protester, a man in his 50s who held a banner that said in Burmese and English, "Saving Suu is saving Burma".

Both sides are set to give their closing statements to the trial on Monday, Nyan Win said.

ASEAN last week issued a rare condemnation of Myanmar, warning that the regime's "honour and credibility" were at stake, in response to Western pressure to take action against its most troublesome member.

Singapore's government said, however, that expelling Myanmar from the 10-member bloc was not the way to bring about reform.

"The question of expulsion or suspension, which [is] often raised by external observers of ASEAN, is not as straightforward as it seems," said Zainul Abidin Rasheed, senior minister of state at the Foreign Ministry, today at the city-state's parliament.

"We have always believed in ASEAN that we have more influence over Myanmar, however limited, through engagement rather than isolating it."



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