The foreign ministers of Southeast Asian nations have opened their annual meeting in Singapore. The focus of this year’s meeting is on the assessment of the Myanmar Cyclone Nargis disaster, the ASEAN Charter and regional security. Earlier the 10-nation bloc also issued a joint statement on Myanmar, urging the ruling junta to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees.
Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan Win, left, with his Singapore counterpart George Yeo at an ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in May
The 41st ASEAN Ministers Meeting has begun in Singapore. The foreign ministers of the 10-member regional grouping of Southeast Asian countries are seeking an agreement on a framework for a landmark human rights body which will become part of the group’s charter.
Myanmar, as Burma is officially known, formally handed in its charter ratification papers on Monday’s meeting. This means the military junta is signing up for plans on economic liberalisation and the human rights body. Myanmar also vowed to uphold the democratic ideals of ASEAN. The country, vilified for its dictatorial government and human rights abuses, became the seventh of the ten member regional grouping to ratify the document. Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have yet to ratify the document.
Push for the release of political prisoners
Myanmar’s ratification of the charter comes after Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo openly criticised the country. “The foreign ministers expressed their deep disappointment that Aung San Suu Kyi's detention under house arrest had been extended by the Myanmar government. They repeated the call by ASEAN leaders for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees,” said Yeo.
The ministers' strong language on political prisoners deviated from ASEAN's usual practice of skirting controversy in the name of non-interference. But analysts such as Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma believe it does not signal a shift in policy towards Myanmar's generals.
She said it was dangerous rhetoric as the Myanmar regime actually told the United Nations last month that they would detain Aung San Suu Kyi until November last year.
“They've been promising ASEAN to release Aung San Suu Kyi for the past five years, and nothing has happened,” said Stothard.
Thai-Cambodian border dispute
Southeast Asian ministers also discussed the situation on the border between Thailand and Cambodia -- where hundreds of troops from both sides are facing off around an 11-century temple on a disputed plot of land. They have urged both countries to show restraint to avoid an armed conflict.
The meetings will culminate in a gathering on Thursday of the 27-nation ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia's top security and political grouping which includes the United States, China and the European Union.
A highlight is expected to be an informal meeting between United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun on the sidelines of the forum. Rice has ruled out any plans for bilateral talks with Pak, but will meet him for the first time at an informal gathering of the diplomats of the six countries negotiating Pyongyang's denuclearisation.