Regional heads urge fair Burma elections

Oct 23, 2009 (DVB), Southeast Asian leaders yesterday pressured the Burmese junta to hold free elections next year and raised doubts about the military generals' commitment to a new civilian government.

The comments came a day before members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet in Thailand for the 15th ASEAN summit, with Burma's membership of the bloc an increasingly thorny issue since the sentencing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in August.

"They have said many times the elections next year will be inclusive, free and fair. That remains to be seen," said Thailand's foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, speaking to Reuters reporters.

He said that Burma had an "obligation" to promote human rights under an agreement ratified last year by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Elections in Burma have been scheduled for next year, although critics of the junta claim it is only paying lip-service to democratic reform, with the constitution appearing to cement military rule in the country.

Piromya reiterated calls for the release of Suu Kyi, whose 18-month sentence means she will likely remain in detention beyond the elections.

An appeal drafted by ASEAN urging the Burmese generals to release Suu Kyi was however scrapped earlier this week, with several regional leaders citing contravention of ASEAN's policy of non-interference in domestic issues of member states.

Meanwhile, an exiled Burmese activist, Khin Ohmar, who was chosen to represent civil society groups at the ASEAN summit was among five people today barred from attending.

The other four delegates were from Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia and Laos. The latter two, along with Burma, had flatly rejected initial proposals to invite civil society groups to attend.

The summit will coincide with the launch of ASEAN's first ever human rights watchdog, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Critics have warned however that the body holds no punitive powers, and instead 'promotes' human rights.

Ohmar told DVB earlier this week that it was "a human rights commission for the government; it's already so weak in so many ways".

Reporting by Francis Wade

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