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ASEAN Under Pressure to Press Burma Against Violence

26 September 2007

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is coming under pressure to find ways to prevent further violence as Burma's government deals with recent protests. As Ron Corben reports from VOA's Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok, Burma's neighbors are worried that the military's crackdown on the protesters, which began Wednesday, could lead to massive bloodshed.

Rights groups have called on ASEAN and Burma's other allies, such as China and India, to persuade the Burmese military to deal peacefully with the tens of thousands of protesters.

The protests began last month after the government sharply raised fuel prices. In the past week, thousands of Buddhist monks have led marchers through Rangoon and other cities. On Wednesday, a government crackdown began and protesters were met by armed troops who used tear gas and batons to turn them back.

A group of parliament members from several ASEAN nations want their leaders to push for reform in Burma. The group's president, Zaid Ibrahim, says the international community should quickly support Burma's people. He notes the United Nations General Assembly, going on this week in New York, is a good opportunity for action.

"Obviously ASEAN has to move in very quickly and has to at least put a collective voice for once and remind the regime not to do anything that will cause harm to the people," he said. "The United Nations, they are all meeting this week in New York. This is the best time for the international community together with the ASEAN and Europe to press the regime to sit down and talk about change."

Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have all pressed Burma's military for political reform, with little success. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have resisted any formal ASEAN action regarding Burma.

The military took power in 1962. In 1988, the government crushed pro-democracy protests, killing at least 3,000 people. But two years later, it allowed elections, which the opposition National League for Democracy won.

The military, however, refused to hand over power and jailed thousands of NLD supporters. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the years since under house arrest in Rangoon.

Zaid says the protests clearly show the Burmese public wants change.

"It is clear from the demonstrations that, not withstanding all the harsh measures, the people of Burma have once again they have shown to the world they want a change in the way that the government deals with them," he said.

ASEAN has a policy of not interfering in the affairs of its 10 members. But Burma's slow pace of reform has led to increasing debate within the group.

Western governments, including the United States and European Union, want ASEAN to push for reform in Burma. The EU and the U.S. maintain tough economic sanctions on Burma because of its poor human rights record and its detention of opposition activists. On Tuesday, President Bush toughened sanctions against the Burmese leaders.

Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for the rights group Alternative ASEAN Network, says the international community needs to intervene now.

"This is a time that any international intervention is going to make a huge difference. The regime has got its back against the wall - it's feeling very vulnerable," she said.

But other experts doubt international pressure will succeed, especially from Burma's neighbors.

Carl Thayer, a defense expert at Australia's University of New South Wales, says ASEAN appears unlikely to take further action.

"ASEAN has already indicated that they reached a certain level of frustration - they can't do anything and that's their non-intervention (policy)," he said.

Burma is one of the world's poorest nations. Its leaders are accused of enriching themselves through sales of natural resources, while letting the rest of the population sink further into poverty. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese have left the country, most going to Thailand, to work illegally.

Thousands more live in refugee camps in Thailand, after fleeing military crackdowns on ethnic minority groups that opposed Burma's government.

ALTSEAN's Stothardt warns that harsh military action could send hundreds of thousands of Burmese fleeing to neighboring countries.

"Then the disaster is not going to be for Burma - it's going to be for India, China and the rest of the region," said Stothardt.

Burma joined ASEAN in 1997 against the protests of the U.S., EU and other nations concerned about its human rights record. But ASEAN leaders argued that engaging Burma would help steer it toward democratic and economic reforms.

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