October 22, 2009 / 1:48 PM / 10 years ago

Southeast Asia presses Myanmar over election

By Jason Szep

HUA HIN, Thailand, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Southeast Asian governments raised pressure on military-ruled Myanmar on Thursday to hold "free and fair" elections next year, and urged the junta to free pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The sentencing of Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner detained for 14 of the last 20 years, to a further 18 months of detention this year has led the West to question whether the election next year in the former Burma will be a sham.

"They have said many times the elections next year will be inclusive, free and fair. That remains to be seen," Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said after a meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations.

Speaking at a news conference in the seaside resort town of Hua Hin, he said Myanmar had a commitment to promote human rights under an agreement ratified by its rulers last year to create a so-called ASEAN integrated community by 2015.

"That’s Myanmar’s obligation as a member of ASEAN," he said, describing talks with Myanmar’s foreign minister, Nyan Win, as "very cordial".

He said ASEAN’s request for the release of Suu Kyi still stood. Earlier in the year, some Southeast Asian countries had urged ASEAN to take a tougher stand on Myanmar with a public appeal calling on the junta to grant an amnesty to Suu Kyi.

That went nowhere. Several ASEAN nations rebuffed it, saying it contravened the grouping’s long-standing non-interference policy in each others’ internal politics.

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCHDOG

Suu Kyi was found guilty in August of breaking a law protecting the state from "subversive elements" when, while under house arrest, she allowed an American intruder to stay at her lakeside home for two nights.

The ruling sparked international outrage and was widely dismissed as a ploy to keep Suu Kyi out of next year’s election, the first since 1990, when her National League for Democracy party scored a landslide victory the junta refused to recognise.

Kasit made his comments a day before the launch by ASEAN leaders of a human rights watchdog critics say is already discredited by having Myanmar, seen as a serial rights abuser, as part of the mechanism.

The new body, called the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, has no power to punish members and aims to promote rather than protect human rights.

It is unlikely to have much influence, for instance, in efforts to free Suu Kyi or the estimated 2,000 political prisoners in the reclusive country.

Myanmar’s generals allowed Suu Kyi recently to meet with Western diplomats after Washington said late last month it was embarking on a new policy of engagement with the junta.

Yangon is touting the election next year as a final destination on its "roadmap to democracy".

ASEAN’s members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. (Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Ron Popeski)



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