Obama calls for Suu Kyi release

Nov 16, 2009 (DVB), United States' president Barrack Obama made a personal appeal for the release of Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi during a summit between the US and Southeast Asian leaders last week.

Any mention of Suu Kyi was however conspicuously absent from a 27-point statement released following the summit, which expressed only hope for "broad political and economic reforms" in Burma.

It was the first time that a US president had met with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was formed at the height of the Vietnam War.

It was also the first time since 1966 that a US head of state has crossed paths with a Burmese prime minister. According to Reuters, Obama shook hands with prime minister Thein Sein, and made a direct request that the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) release Suu Kyi and Burma's other 2,100 political prisoners.

The ASEAN general secretary, Surin Pitsuwan, quoted Thein Sein as saying that Washington's new era of engagement with Burma "will be a new chapter in the relationship to all the countries in the region".

However, the lack of a mention for Burma's political prisoners in the ASEAN statement has drawn criticism from Burma observers.

Debbie Stothard, head of the advocacy group, ALTSEAN-Burma, said the omission was "very significant" given that ASEAN has pushed for Suu Kyi's release in the past.

"I think there would have been pressure by the SPDC on ASEAN heads of government to put a very moderate or conservative position on Burma in front of President Obama," she said.

"This sends a message that ASEAN is hoping the US will come around to their point of view, and not the other way round."

She added that it was a sign that the Burmese government, which has been involved in high-level discussions with Washington officials in recent weeks, was "being very defensive and sensitive".

The government is preparing for the country's first elections since 1990, scheduled to be held sometime next year. While Suu Kyi's detention was expected to keep her out of politics beyond the elections, the government has recently hinted that she may be freed prior to polling.

The ASEAN statement said that the elections "must be conducted in a free, fair, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community".

Reporting by Francis Wade

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