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Obama tells Myanmar to free Suu Kyi

world Updated: Nov 15, 2009 20:11 IST

US President Barack Obama used a meeting on Sunday with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to urge pariah state Myanmar to free pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

In what was the first meeting in 43 years between a US president and the leaders of the military junta in Myanmar, Obama reportedly told Prime Minister General Thein Sein to release Suu Kyi.

The US has been reluctant to hold a separate summit with ASEAN since 1997, when Myanmar - also called Burma - joined the grouping despite stiff objections from the US and the EU.

Military-ruled Myanmar has earned pariah status among western democracies for its poor human rights record, not freeing Suu Kyi - the 64-year-old opposition leader who has been under house arrest for more than six years, and its glacial pace of political reforms.

In a joint statement issued by the US and ASEAN, the two sides welcomed Obama's new policy of engagement with Myanmar, as demonstrated by a high-level visit by Assistant Secretary of State Kuty Campbell to Myanmar earlier this month.

"We expressed our hope that this effort, as well as ASEAN's, would contribute to broad political and economic reforms and the process will be further enhanced in the future," the statement added.

It called on Myanmar's junta to conduct a planned general election next year in a "free, fair, inclusive and transparent manner".

"I reaffirmed the policy that I put forward yesterday in Tokyo with regard to Burma," Obama said in a statement following the summit.

In Tokyo, Obama said Myanmar needed to take "clear steps" towards democracy, including the unconditional release of all political prisoners, an end to conflicts with minority groups and a "genuine dialogue" with the opposition and minorities on a "shared vision for the future".

He noted that the US had begun communicating directly with the Burmese leadership after neither sanctions nor engagement by others had succeeded. The message Washington was sending via the newly opened lines was "that existing sanctions will remain until there are concrete steps towards democratic reform".

Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party, has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest.

Obama, since coming to office, has pursued a policy of "re-engagement" with ASEAN, and the rest of East Asia, which was arguably a low priority for his predecessor George W Bush.

Obama made a point of including all members of ASEAN at the Singapore summit, even though Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are not members of APEC, a 21-nation grouping of leading Asian and American economies.

"It was an honour to take part in this historic meeting. I look forward to a second leaders' meeting next year," Obama said after the 90-minute summit which was held on the sidelines of the APEC summit hosted by Singapore this year.

Obama's decision to hold a separate bilateral summit with ASEAN was deemed a diplomatic breakthrough for the regional grouping, which has been increasingly sidelined on the world arena by the growing economic and political clout of China and India.

"This represents a seismic shift in US policy," said ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan.