Burma's problems are regional, says Clinton

Nov 12, 2009 (DVB), If Burma's internal problems are left unaddressed then they will impact further on the stability of neighbouring countries, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said yesterday.

The comments come as regional Southeast Asian leaders are due in Singapore this week for a summit between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United States.

US president Barrack Obama is due to attend the summit, along with Burmese prime minister Thein Sein. Obama will be the first US president to meet with all 10 members of the bloc.

"I think it's, important to recognize that left alone, the internal problems within Burma are not confined within Burma's borders," Clinton said.

"We've seen refugee flows out of Burma, people taking to boats, ending up in Malaysia, ending up in Indonesia, ending up in Australia, crossing the border into Thailand. That instability is not good for anyone."

Burma's presence within ASEAN has been an increasingly thorny issue as turmoil inside the country risks impacting on the region.

The Thai government, which holds the current ASEAN chair, is said to be concerned about the possible influx of refugees escaping fighting in the run-up to elections in Burma next year.

"The situation is Burma is so chronic that people are always coming across the border," said Jackie Pollock, from the Thailand-based Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP) foundation. "There's a man-made disaster there all the time and people are having to flee from that."

ASEAN has been criticized for its policy of non-interference in internal affairs of member countries, which has seen it back away from outright criticism of the Burmese government.

Its most vocal condemnation in recent memory came in August when the ASEAN secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, voiced concern that the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi was tarnishing the bloc's image.

A spokesperson from the Asian Human Rights Commission, speaking under condition of anonymity, told DVB that ASEAN "has been grappling for years with Burma's problems", but that people were perhaps expecting too much from the bloc.

"It was never the type of organization that could promise real, highly progressive action on human rights; it's a security and economic organization," he said.

He added that it had been shifting tentatively away from non-interference in recent years, particularly with the "dramatic departure" that the formation of the Tripartite Core Group (between ASEAN, the United Nations and Burma) took. But, he said, too much reliance on ASEAN could prove counter-productive.

"What people need to be thinking about is other routes apart from ASEAN," he said, while "a much of the international community has just used ASEAN as a distraction from its own lack of pressure."

Reporting by Francis Wade

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