SINGAPORE U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Southeast Asian nations on Wednesday to put more pressure on Myanmar's junta to improve human rights and adopt democratic reforms.
Speaking after meeting foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, Rice said ASEAN especially needs to push Myanmar to release political prisoners, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
"We believe that ASEAN has an important role to play in addressing the root cause of Burma's grave problems -- the repression of Burma's democracy movement," Rice said.
"It was in the interest of ASEAN and the people of Burma to persuade Myanmar's leaders to free political prisoners and to open up a dialogue with the democracy movement," she added.
ASEAN foreign ministers, frustrated after years of fruitless overtures to Myanmar to reform, expressed "deep disappointment" in a statement on Sunday that the ruling generals had extended Suu Kyi's house arrest.
They called for her release and that of other political detainees "as part of Myanmar's National Reconciliation process".
That was the first time ASEAN had ever specifically mentioned Suu Kyi in one of its communiques, diplomats said.
Myanmar is testing ASEAN's coherence as the group ratifies a charter that would turn it into a rules-based, EU-style bloc.
Included in the charter would be a human rights body that could possibly be empowered to monitor and investigate human rights violations.
The body, whose terms of reference are still being hammered out, has generated great debate within ASEAN, particularly from Myanmar, which sees an empowered body as possibly transgressing one of ASEAN's cardinal principles -- non-interference in members' internal affairs, diplomats said.
Rice said the best way for ASEAN to become stronger was to expand democracy and the rule of law among its members.
ASEAN's members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
(Reporting by Sue Plemming; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Paul Tait)