Burma off the agenda at ASEAN summit

Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein will attend a summit of regional leaders next week in Hanoi but the issue of Burma’s controversial elections are not expected to be specifically discussed.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters on Friday last week that the elections issue “is not officially scheduled” for the 17th ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit, but that “there may be a session to discuss recent progress in the region”, where it may arise.

Top-level officials from the 10-member bloc are due to arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam, on 28 October for the three-day summit. ASEAN’s policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states means however that internal issues of concern are rarely broached; instead it is likely that a plan being drawn up for greater regional inter-connectivity will top the agenda.

The 7 November polls, Burma’s first in 20 years, have attracted widespread criticism – foreign journalists and election monitors are banned from the country, while the party headed by Thein Sein and bolstered by some 30 former junta officials is widely tipped to win. Generally however, the ASEAN grouping has tiptoed around calls for greater pressure on the generals.

“The ASEAN position has been quite clear – they’ve said the elections should be free and fair…and there’s not much else they can do,” said Burma analyst Larry Jagan.

He added that the elections will definitely be discussed at the closed-door meetings, while the Chinese would certainly raise the issue during the bilateral meetings. “They’re very concerned about security issues along the border and the push to get a UN commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma.”

ASEAN ministers are however concerned about the effect that international condemnation of the polls is having on the bloc’s image. “The region’s credibility is at stake with these elections – if they’re not credible, then they’re all in trouble,” Jagan said.

Indonesia has been the most vocal of Burma’s regional neighbours, with foreign ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah telling the Jakarta Post last week that, “The planned election, long-awaited both by the Myanmarese [Burmese] and the international community would serve its purpose best with thorough media coverage”.

In contrast, countries such as Laos, Vietnam and Singapore, have all been comparatively quiet. The ASEAN bloc also includes Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand.

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