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Obama to meet Myanmar PM at ASEAN summit

Barack Obama will meet Myanmar's prime minister on Sunday when he becomes the first US president to have a formal meeting with leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

world Updated: Nov 15, 2009 18:48 IST

Barack Obama will meet Myanmar's prime minister on Sunday when he becomes the first US president to have a formal meeting with leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

The meeting, on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore, would mark the first time in history a US leader had met with his counterparts in the 42-year-old grouping, founded at the height of the Vietnam War.

And for the first time in decades, the United States and ASEAN are singing from the same hymn book when it comes to Myanmar, one of the newest members of the 10-nation grouping.

Washington has recently taken a two-prong approach to the former Burma, engaging the junta while keeping sanctions on the resource-rich nation that shares borders with India and China.

For years, ASEAN was heavily criticised in the West for its own fruitless engagement policy with Myanmar's generals. Now it is hoping that with US support, Myanmar, under military rule since 1962, can be guided back to democracy.

A draft declaration to be issued following the meeting said the leaders hoped the engagement policy "would contribute to broad political and economic reforms".

"We also underscored the importance of achieving national reconciliation and that the general elections to be held in Myanmar in 2010 must be conducted in a free, fair, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community."

The declaration called on the government to "initiate a dialogue with all stakeholders to ensure that the process is fully inclusive".

It did not mention opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel laureate remains under house arrest, but has been allowed to meet US diplomats and last week expressed hopes those contacts would lead to democratic reforms.

China's opening

By refusing to deal with ASEAN because of Burma, the US has limited its involvement on a range of issues in Southeast Asia, said Ernie Bower, Southeast Asia Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They (the Obama administration) are not allowing Burma policy to wag the dog of ASEAN policy," he said.

"China has been greatly enjoying US disengagement in Southeast Asia for the past 10 years, while the Chinese themselves have been deeply engaged," he said.

Obama would be the first president since Lyndon Johnson in 1966 to even be in the same room as a top Myanmar leader, when Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein joins the meeting at Singapore's Istana, the official residence of the country's president.

US officials have not said whether Obama would try to avoid shaking hands or having his picture taken with Thein Sein.

The administration of Barack Obama, who lived in Jakarta as a boy and has pronounced himself America's "first Pacific President", has taken renewed interest in ASEAN, home to 570 million people with combined economic output of $1.1 trillion.

Washington routinely sent lower level officials to ASEAN meetings under former President George W Bush, in part at least because a junta member was part of the ASEAN pageantry.

New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Obama to raise "the lack of democratic change in Burma, restraints on freedom of expression across the region, widespread impunity for rights violations, and a weak regional human rights institution" at the ASEAN meeting.

ASEAN recently created a human rights commission, which has been criticised for lacking any power to enforce its judgments.

The draft declaration said Obama would express support for the commission and invite them to visit the United States next year to "consult with international experts".