Burma has made a concession, in order to prevent the U.S. and the European Union from boycotting a conference of Southeast Asian nations this week. But critics say Burma is still showing little interest in democracy.
Songs and smiles masked the tension, as foreign ministers from around the world arrived in Laos for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, meeting. The United States and the European Union had threatened to boycott the conference, unless Burma agreed to either free a pro-democracy leader, or forfeit its turn as ASEAN chair next year.
But Burma avoided the standoff Tuesday, by declining the chairmanship. Foreign Minister Nyan Win promised Burma would focus on democratic reforms it says it's implementing.
U Nyan Win said, "We will have to draft the initial constitution and then we have to make a referendum and after that we will make a free and fair election."
ASEAN countries and the U.S. praised Burma's decision to relinquish the chairmanship. But U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the Burmese government still must improve its human rights record: "Arrests of pro-democracy supporters continue unabated, as do egregious human rights abuses. And we again call upon Burmese authorities to release Aung San Suu Kyi."
Aung San Suu Kyi leads the pro-democracy party that won a landslide victory in 1990 elections. Burma's military rulers have disregarded the results, and have kept her under detention most of the time since then. Critics of the Burmese government say... by giving up the ASEAN post, rather than releasing Aung San Suu Kyi... Burma makes it clear that democracy is NOT a top priority. Dana Dillon is an Asia policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, DC.
Mr. Dillon said, "The signal you get is that Burma has, or the junta in Burma, has no intention of making any substantive changes to what is going on, what they're doing to that country. They have demonstrated that they have no intention of changing."
Meantime, some foreign ministers say they're disappointed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice did not attend the ASEAN meeting, given the current dynamics in the region: "China had been a big influence in Southeast Asia recently they have been spending a lot of money there, they have been bullying many of the countries in Southeast Asia, and China's foreign minister is at the ASEAN forum, while the United States is represented by a deputy."
Ms. Rice is the first U.S. Secretary of State to miss the ASEAN meeting in more than 20 years.