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Ministerial Meeting
July 31, 2007

Myanmar raises ire at East Asia meet
Myanmar was once again the whipping boy at a gathering of Asian foreign ministers on July 31, with many saying they were losing patience with the military-ruled nation and its dismal human rights record, Reuters reported.

Ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, and from observer nations including India, Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand are in Manila for a regional security forum and bilateral meetings.

"What amazes me about Burma is that the leadership seems completely insensitive to and impervious of the views of the outside world," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters, referring to Myanmar by its former name.

"I hate to say this, but it seems to me nothing is working," he said when asked what could be done. "There have been sanctions, there has been so-called constructive engagement, human rights dialogues, there have been visits, there have been representations, there have been threats but nothing moves the leadership of Burma."

On July 30, the ASEAN ministers issued a joint communique calling on Myanmar to restore democracy and release political detainees, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

However, in a nod to the sensitivities of Myanmar's military junta, the document did not name Suu Kyi, but referred to her as the leader of the NLD (National League for Democracy).

An estimated 1,100 political prisoners are believed to be behind bars in the former Burma. Suu Kyi, 62, has now been confined for more than 11 of the past 17 years. Her latest detention began in 2003.

The United States, the European Union and Japan have sanctions in place against Myanmar.

"It is important for regional countries and the whole international community to continue to express our concern and our interest for the humanitarian issues in Myanmar," Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Mitsuo Sakaba said.

He said the junta needed to improve the humanitarian situation and bring in some democratisation to "re-open" Japanese assistance programmes.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said maintaining engagement was important. "You have to see beyond governments and beyond temporarily empowered politicians to see what the long-term arrangements between the people would be," he was quoted as telling Reuters.

"Sometimes you have to look and see how you can improve things, change things for the better, so that it justifies why you have been engaged in this way in the first place."

Peters held a bilateral meeting with Myanmar counterpart U Nyan Win on July 31 but said he got little by way of commitment. "We talked about the need for there to be a logistical pathway for elections free and fair, so that democracy is restored to that country," he said. "And that's the point we have not got to, a commitment on that."

ASEAN admitted Myanmar into its fold 10 years ago, and has maintained that keeping the nation engaged will lead to some change. "We know some people get very impatient with Mynanmar, we also get impatient with Myanmar but Myanmar with us is better than Myanmar isolated," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told reporters.

He said a commitment by the country's rulers that they were holding the final session of a convention drafting a new constitution was a positive step.

Australia's Downer said Asian giants China and India should put more pressure on Myanmar. "We just have to keep doing what we can do, but I think as time goes on China itself will put pressure on Burma," he said. "And India and other neighbouring countries, not just ASEAN. You just have to keep persisting."

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