BANGKOK (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday it was worried about the possibility of military links between North Korea and Myanmar and called on Myanmar to end human rights abuses and the mistreatment of minorities.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced the concerns ahead of a regional security meeting whose most contentious topics may include how to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program and how to promote democracy in military-ruled Myanmar.
“We know that there are also growing concerns about military cooperation between North Korea and Burma, which we take very seriously,” Clinton told reporters when asked about reports of nuclear cooperation between the two countries.
“It would be destabilizing for the region. It would pose a direct threat to Burma’s neighbors,” said Clinton, who is this week attending the ASEAN Regional Forum security gathering on the Thai island resort of Phuket.
Both North Korea and Myanmar, also known as Burma, will be represented.
Clinton avoided directly commenting on the possibility Myanmar might try to get nuclear expertise from North Korea, which has a long history of arms proliferation and which U.S. officials believe helped Syria to build a nuclear reactor.
Pyongyang, which tested a nuclear device in May and test-launched seven ballistic missiles earlier this month, will come under pressure in Phuket to resume multilateral talks on ending its nuclear program.
Talk of Myanmar-North Korea military ties has been fueled by the fact that a North Korean ship, tracked by the United States in June and July on suspicion of carrying arms, appeared headed toward Myanmar before turning around.
“It is something, as a treaty ally of Thailand, that we are taking very seriously,” Clinton said, referring to the reported military links between North Korea and Myanmar, which shares a border with Thailand.
Clinton criticized Myanmar for alleged human rights abuses, including allegations that military officers have organized gang rapes of girls, and called on the junta to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other activists.
Suu Kyi has spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention in Myanmar, mostly under house arrest at her lakeside home in the former capital, Yangon. She is currently on trial, charged with breaching security laws when an uninvited American swam across the lake and spent two days in her home.
The trial is widely seen as a trumped-up affair that the military will use to keep Suu Kyi out of the way until after elections due next year. Adding to the international outrage over her treatment, it is being held behind closed doors.
Clinton also held out the possibility of better ties if the military regime moved toward greater openness. “Our position is that we are willing to have a more productive partnership with Burma if they take steps that are self-evident.”
“End the political prisoners in detention who have been rounded up by the government and other steps that Burma knows it could take; end the violence against their own people, including the minorities ...; end the mistreatment of Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Before the bizarre incident involving the swimmer and the subsequent trial, Clinton had broached the prospect of a change in U.S. policy toward Myanmar after years of sanctions had done little to soften the regime’s hard line against opponents.
Myanmar has been under military rule of one sort or another since 1962, during which time it has been riven by dozens of ethnic guerrilla wars, funded in part by money from opium sales from the notorious “Golden Triangle.”
In June government forces captured three Karen rebel positions in the east of the country, forcing thousands more refugees to flee over the border to Thailand.
Editing by Diana Abdallah