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Guarded hope as Obama engages Myanmar

Supporters of Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi Aung San Suu Kyi (oung sän s chē), 1945–, Burmese political leader.  voiced guarded hope after US President Barack Obama raised her case directly with the junta, but some accused Southeast Asian leaders of undercutting his message.

In Singapore, Obama on Sunday held a first-ever summit with leaders of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), organization established by the Bangkok Declaration (1967), linking the nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.  (ASEAN ASEAN: see Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
 in full Association of Southeast Asian Nations

International organization established by the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand in
) where he pressed member Myanmar, earlier known as Burma, to enter dialogue with the opposition.

The summit was a dramatic symbol of the Obama administration's new approach of engaging Myanmar. Just months ago, any senior US official -- let alone the president himself -- meeting the military regime would have been unthinkable.

The White House said Obama asked Prime Minister Thein Sein Lieutenant General Thein Sein is the Prime Minister of Myanmar. He was appointed on April[1] 2007 to stand in for Prime Minister Soe Win, who was undergoing medical treatment in a private hospital in Singapore.  to free all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of her time under house arrest since her party swept 1990 elections and was prevented from taking power.

But in a joint statement, the US and ASEAN leaders made no mention of Aung San Suu Kyi and only called for Myanmar next year to hold a free election -- which the opposition has called a sham aimed at legitimizing the junta.

Aung Din, a former political prisoner who heads the US Campaign for Burma advocacy group, said that Obama sent a powerful signal by pressuring the junta in person in front of the other nine ASEAN leaders.

"Sure, certain members of ASEAN may not go along. But it doesn't matter. They could not run away from Obama's message and the enhanced US partnership with ASEAN," he said.

Aung Din voiced hope that Obama will raise Myanmar on the subsequent leg of his trip in China -- the main commercial and military partner of the junta.

But human rights group Amnesty International Amnesty International (AI,) human-rights organization founded in 1961 by Englishman Peter Benenson; it campaigns internationally against the detention of prisoners of conscience, for the fair trial of political prisoners, to abolish the death penalty and torture of  criticized ASEAN leaders for failing to reach a consensus to call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi or other prisoners in the statement.

"We are extremely disappointed," said T. Kumar, the director for international advocacy at Amnesty International USA Amnesty International USA (AI USA) is a United States organisation that works to end human rights abuses and part is of the Amnesty International network.

Since being founded, the organisation has worked to free prisoners of conscience, oppose torture, and fight other human
. "It is a step backward."

"We welcome and we appreciate President Obama personally raising Aung San Suu Kyi's case," he said.

"But the joint statement sent the wrong signal, letting the Burmese feel that it is only the United States and not ASEAN that is pushing them," he said.

ASEAN -- whose ranks include communist nations Laos and Vietnam -- has long faced criticism both from abroad and from within some member-states for not taking a firmer stand on Myanmar.

ASEAN's last summit in Thailand that ended on March 1 also did not directly name Aung San Suu Kyi in its final statement but -- unlike on Sunday -- said "the release of political prisoners" would help national reconciliation.

Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a Washington, D.C.-based foreign policy think tank. The center was founded in 1964 by Admiral Arleigh Burke and historian David Manker Abshire, originally as part of Georgetown University. , a Washington think-tank, said that ASEAN leaders nonetheless were united in seeking progress on Myanmar.

"When you have an intractable problem like Burma, there's some risk that maybe our interests in engagement are not completely aligned with all the other parties, but everybody wants movement in this direction," he said.

More important, Bower said that Myanmar's willingness to sit down for talks was a reason for optimism.

"They're looking for a way to get out of the box that they've created for themselves, which for me is the most hopeful sign on Burma in the last 20 years," he said.

But the diplomatic push will soon face a stark challenge as the junta prepares elections next year, the country's first since the 1990 debacle.

The United States has pressed for a free vote but said it is skeptical. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has called a boycott but observers expect it will face pressure to take part if the junta makes concessions.

Obama's meeting was the first between a US president and a Burmese leader since 1966. It followed a rare visit earlier this month to Myanmar by Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia.
Copyright 2009 AFP Asian Edition
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Publication:AFP Asian Edition
Date:Nov 16, 2009
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