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Southeast Asia's critical test



Published: Wed, April 20, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Baltimore Sun: The military junta strangling Myanmar has survived with a lot of help from its Southeast Asian neighbors. After all, Myanmar's generals offer natural resources, slave labor and a profitable drug trade. And anyway, a key principle of the region's top political organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has long been noninterference in its members' internal affairs.

But Myanmar is to take over leadership of ASEAN next year. And given the regime's brutality, that honor finally is proving embarrassing enough that officials from some of the group's 10 members -- Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines -- have been calling for preventing Myanmar from assuming this chairmanship.

Reaction overdue

That would be a long-overdue and justified rejection by regional leaders and a welcome addition to U.S. and European Union sanctions on Myanmar, which so far have not led to change there. But disappointingly, at a retreat last week in the Philippines, ASEAN foreign ministers deferred action until at least their next meeting in July.

For ASEAN, this is a critical test. The country once known as Burma was admitted to the group in 1997 with the hope that membership would prod the generals toward reforms. But today, many Burmese remain enslaved, a democratic party legally elected in 1990 is repressed, and its leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest.

Myanmar's generals still have plenty of support, particularly from China, India and Thailand, which has been particularly complicit in sustaining the regime and silent on its ASEAN chairmanship.

ASEAN must know that it would be setting for itself a new standard of international disgrace if it does not withdraw support for Myanmar.




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