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9 April 2010

Asean Summit: Myanmar junta urged to open elections

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Southeast Asian leaders urged Myanmar's isolated military government to hold free and fair elections later this year and pledged Friday to enhance economic cooperation among themselves as they ended a regional summit, reported the Associated Press.

"The elections should be free and democratic with the participation of all parties," said Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who chaired the 16th annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Asean leaders did not issue a formal statement about Myanmar, but Dung stated the organization's position during a news conference after the summit.

Myanmar's military junta plans to call elections sometime this year, but under the election laws, detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is forbidden from participating. Her party, the National League for Democracy, is boycotting the polls _ the first in two decades, potentially undermining the credibility of the outcome.

The opposition won the 1990 elections, but the military refused to allow it to take power and has since tightly controlled political expression, jailing political activists _ including Suu Kyi for 14 of the last 20 years _ and quelling mass protests.

Speaking on the sidelines of the summit Friday morning, Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa said it was important for Myanmar to make the transition to democracy.

"We want very much to see an election that is going to obtain international recognition and credibility," he said.

Leaders from the 10 Asean nations represent widely diverging political systems _ ranging from democracies to communism to a military junta _ and generally refrain from commenting on one another's political affairs.

Representing his single-party communist state, Dung recently visited Myanmar to promote Vietnamese trade and investment there. He said he conveyed Asean's position on the elections to Prime Minister Thein Sein at that time.

"Asean countries reaffirm their continued support to Myanmar in its active regional and international integration," Dung said Friday, when asked about Myanmar's election plans. "We are ready to support Myanmar if requested, under the spirit of the Asean charter."

Other leaders at the summit said that they needed to engage Myanmar, not isolate it.

"We are not in a position to punish Myanmar," said Indonesian Prime Minister George Yeo. "If China and India remain engaged with Myanmar, then we have to."

The summit took place amid an escalating political crisis in Thailand that forced Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to declare a state of emergency and cancel his trip to Hanoi. Thailand's "Red Shirt" protesters, who briefly occupied parliament this week, are generally supporters of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, and want Abhisit to resign and call new elections.

Dung made no reference to Thailand's troubles during his post-summit news conference.

Dung said the Asean leaders had agreed to intensify their economic cooperation, with the goal of establishing a European-style economic community by 2015 and promoting development across the region.

They also agreed on a system for resolving disputes among member states and agreed to work together to address climate change.

Asean's foreign ministers predict that economic growth across the region could reach 5.5 percent this year and they said they would take steps to ensure financial stability.

The leaders issued a statement saying the global economy shows signs of recovery, although it would be slow.

"We believe Asean's inherent dynamism will help the region sustain its recovery and attain higher economic growth," the statement said.


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