Thai FM says Burma unfit for ASEAN chair

Thailand’s foreign minister has reportedly told his Australian counterpart that Burma must release all 2,100 political prisoners at the very least before ASEAN considers giving it the 2014 chair.

Kasit Piromya was speaking with Australian FM Kevin Rudd during a meeting in Bangkok last week. The Australian Associated Press quoted Kasit as saying that Burma has an “obligation to itself, to the ASEAN community in terms of the credibility, respectability and also the internal position of the ASEAN community”, all of which would need to be scrutinised before taking the chair.

It also said that both parties agreed on the need for Burma to improve its human rights record, of which the continued imprisonment of thousands of activists, politicians, monks and journalists is a cause célèbre.

Controversy erupted ten days ago after ASEAN appeared close to handing Burma the revolving chair for 2014, despite stern warnings from rights groups about both the rewarding of Burma’s maligned elections last year, and the effect it would have on the image of the bloc.

Observers quickly levelled sharp criticism at ASEAN, which has come under persistent international pressure to do more about Burma’s myriad domestic crises.

The latest reports suggest the decision has now been delayed. The US had reportedly sent a statement to the current chair, Indonesia, prior to the summit warning that it would sour relations between the bloc and the world’s largest economy if Burma was appointed.

Kasit’s comments are a rarity from a government that is increasingly attempting to court the Burmese leaders in return for furthering its economic reach in the country. It also marks a break from the recent past when Thailand, as chair of ASEAN, was reluctant to criticise the regime. According to the Rangoon-based Myanmar Times, however, ASEAN chief Surin Pitsuwan, a veteran Thai politician, supports Burma’s bid for the chair.

Australia has approached with caution pledges made by the new Burmese government that the country is transitioning to civilian rule. In a video message beamed to a parliamentary forum in Canberra last week, opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi said that there had been “no positive, definite move towards a truly democratic process” in Burma, and urged MPs to closely scrutinise the rhetoric of the government against signs of tangible progress in the country.

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