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Myanmar to confront angry neighbours at Asian meet

It will face a grilling over its refusal to shift to democracy when it confronts angry neighbours and the US at Asia's top security forum.

india Updated: Jul 20, 2006 12:47 IST

Military-ruled Myanmar will face a grilling over its refusal to shift to democracy next week when it confronts angry neighbours and long-time foe the United States at Asia's top security forum.

Frustrated Southeast Asian nations whose attempts to push for change have been ignored by the Yangon regime say it is now up to the United Nations and regional power China to negotiate an end to four decades of military rule.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to lead the criticism here, last year rebuked the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which is hosting the talks for not doing enough to censure the Myanmar junta.

Stung into action, ASEAN unleashed unprecedented criticism of the regime, demanding it accept reforms and release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- but was met with silence.

"I think they have treated us shabbily," said Malaysia's Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar who was snubbed when he visited Yangon in March as ASEAN's envoy and was refused a request to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.

"I think in our case it was almost aborted before it started. They didn't give the opportunity for ASEAN, there's a lack of confidence and even of trust in ASEAN," he told the agency.

Shortly afterwards the junta allowed UN Under Secretary General Ibrahim Gambari to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, and hold talks with the its reclusive leader Senior General Than Shwe outside the new capital of Pyinmana.

Syed Hamid said that as a result, ASEAN was largely abandoning its campaign to push for change in Myanmar, which has been run by the military for four decades.

"We will deal with Myanmar because they're a legitimate part of our organisation. But on the issue of reform, since they feel more comfortable to deal with the UN direct, I think we should allow them to do that," he said.

There are hopes that the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum security talks which follow -- embracing China, India, Japan and South Korea among others -- will break ground on the Myanmar issue.

ASEAN secretary-general Ong Keng Yong indicated there would be a push for a decisive "action-orientated" approach on Myanmar at the talks in the Malaysian capital.

"Should we take a new, more assertive posture that will be seen by our people as well as by all the other interested parties to reflect a determination... to do something more concrete about this situation" he said.

"Ministers will want to get the Myanmar side to commit themselves to more concrete, practical action, to try to deal with this perceived lack of progress. How we can achieve that I think is going to be the subject of 'bargaining' at the dining table."

But in a sign of the disparate views within the region, Syed Hamid indicated there was no clear plan of action.

"I think people may speak their minds, but how far we are going to go I do not know, we will have to see," he said.

"I would not like to speculate so we will wait until the meeting. It would not be fair for me to discuss the options."

Despite the diplomatic bluster, Myanmar is safe in the knowledge that two of its biggest trading partners, China and Thailand, will also be at the table and that neither will be willing to take any action that harms their interests.

China will be under pressure here to do more to exert its influence on the region's two black sheep -- Myanmar and North Korea -- and in both cases it is seen as the key to intractable problems.

"I think there will be calls on China, knowing their influence, the strength that they have with these countries," said Syed Hamid.

Ong also said it was clear that the Myanmar issue was beyond the reach of ASEAN, a motley collection of democracies and dictatorships which is founded on a principle of non-interference in other members' affairs.

"By ourselves ASEAN does not have the leverage. You see everybody thinks we should exert more pressure on Myanmar but we have no rules about punishing any bad boys in our membership," he said.