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SE Asia can do little to change Myanmar
June 2, 2007

Southeast Asian nations can do little to influence Myanmar's domestic
policies or encourage the military leadership to open up, Singapore's
prime minister told an Asian security conference on Friday.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, which includes
Singapore and Myanmar among its 10 members, has long stuck to a policy of
non-interference in one another's domestic politics.

But the group has come under increasing pressure from the West to try to
exert influence on Myanmar to help secure the release of democracy icon
Aung San Suu Kyi and encourage more democracy.

"Myanmar is a problem. It's a problem for Asean, it's a problem for
Myanmar itself," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the opening dinner
of a security conference attended by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and
other senior defence officials from the region.

"I think we have to be realistic about what Asean can do," Lee said, in
response to questions. "We have to accept that our leverage on them is
limited." On May 25, Myanmar's military junta extended the house arrest of
opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi for another year,
ignoring international pleas for her release from the White House, the
United Nations and from fellow Nobel winners.

Myanmar has been a thorn in Asean's side for years over its failure to
move on a "roadmap to democracy" and release political prisoners,
including Suu Kyi. "We can take a strident position and say well, we will
condemn you, we will shut you off, we will embargo you, we will put you in
the dog house. Will we make things better? Will we even cause things to
change? I don't believe so," Lee said.

"They want to be closed off from the rest of Asean. They want to be left
on their own." Instead, Asean would leave Myanmar to sort out its own
issues, Lee said. "We have exercised our influence, persuaded and
encouraged, cajoled the authorities to move and adjust and adapt to the
world which is leaving them behind," he added.

Some of Myanmar's top government leaders have been in Singapore recently
for medical treatment, including junta leader Than Shwe, who came to the
city-state in January.

Last week, Asean officials said they would not raise the issue of
continued detention of Suu Kyi in meetings with 17 security partners,
including some of Myanmar's harshest critics, such as the United States
and the European Union. Reuters


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