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Obama, ASEAN leaders turn up the heat on Burma

Video by Yuka ROYER


Latest update : 2009-11-23

US President Barack Obama joined nine leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in calling on Burma to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and to hold credible elections during a summit meeting in Singapore.

AFP - US President Barack Obama used a landmark encounter with the prime minister of military-run Myanmar on Sunday to demand freedom for detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

"I reaffirmed the policy that I put forward yesterday in Tokyo with regard to Burma (Myanmar)," Obama told reporters, recapping his call Saturday for the junta to release Suu Kyi after two decades of house arrest.

"He brought that up directly with that government," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters as Obama met Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein and nine other regional leaders in Singapore.

Obama was sitting down with friends and foes alike at an unprecedented summit between a US president and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Before opening the talks in a hotel ballroom, Obama and all 10 ASEAN leaders stood in a line on a stage, crossing their arms to shake hands with the leader on either side.

Thein Sein was not in hand-shaking range of Obama, and sat nearly opposite the president as the leaders assembled at a round table, reporters saw before they were ushered out.

The meeting on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific forum was aimed to inject some much-needed warmth into US relations with a region that has felt neglected, with Washington consumed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I believe that the United States is taking the relationship seriously at the highest levels. There is now a momentum that is created," ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan told reporters.

For Obama, it was an opportunity to enlist the support of Myanmar's neighbours in his new strategy of engagement to push for democracy in the military-run state and the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

In a speech in Tokyo on Saturday, the US leader offered Myanmar's generals the prospect of a better relationship if they agreed to reform, but said sanctions would remain until they took concrete steps.

"That is how a government in Burma will be able to respond to the needs of its people," he said on the first leg of his debut tour of Asia.

"That is the path that will bring Burma true security and prosperity."

In a draft of a statement to be released after the talks, the US and ASEAN leaders did not mention Suu Kyi but urged the junta to ensure that elections planned for next year will be "free, fair, inclusive and transparent".

Myanmar has held US ties with Southeast Asia hostage for years, but Obama is keen to review the relationship with the fast-developing region as China exerts a growing presence in its own backyard.

Sunday's meeting was the first time a US president has shared the same room with all 10 leaders from ASEAN -- a mixed bag of emerging democracies, monarchies and communist states.

First signs of a change came earlier this year, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a landmark friendship pact with ASEAN in a move seen as a sign of the US desire to counter Beijing's influence.

One issue crucial to the export-reliant region is trade. But Obama came under fire at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Sinapore over a resurgence of US protectionism during the global economic crisis.

ASEAN members are meanwhile hobbled by their policy of non-interference in each other's affairs, and their focus on their often turbulent domestic arenas.

"This is Obama's first trip here as president and in this context a lot of this trip is a listening trip... as opposed to delivery," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at the Singapore Management University.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.


Date created : 2009-11-15


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