Reclusive Myanmar on course to host regional bloc

NUSA DUA, Indonesia Tue Nov 15, 2011 3:52pm IST

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa speaks to reporters in Jakarta October 22, 2009. REUTERS/Crack Palinggi/Files

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa speaks to reporters in Jakarta October 22, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Crack Palinggi/Files

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NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Myanmar is on course to chair Southeast Asia's regional bloc, Indonesia's foreign minister said on Tuesday after a regional meeting discussed the former Burma's reclusive, army-backed government and its tentative reforms.

The comments by Marty Natalegawa, whose country holds the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN bloc, suggest Myanmar could chair the organisation in 2014, a step that would give one of Asia's most isolated and authoritarian states long-coveted international recognition.

He said foreign ministers of the 10-member South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- of which Myanmar is a member -- would decide on Wednesday whether to endorse Myanmar's bid as ASEAN chair.

"I would be surprised if there is any dissenting view," Natalegawa told reporters. "The overwhelming sense is there are positive conditions for Myanmar's chairmanship but we hope this chairmanship will bring more momentum for change in Myanmar."

That marks significant change in Southeast Asia after years of division over Myanmar and how far to reprimand its former military leaders over human rights abuses.

Just three years ago, some Southeast Asian countries had urged ASEAN to take a tougher stand on Myanmar with a public appeal calling for the release of political prisoners.

Other Southeast Asian countries rejected the move, saying it contravened the grouping's long-standing policy of non-interference in each others' internal politics.

The more unified stance follows signs of reforms in the former British colony since the army nominally handed over power in March to civilians after the first elections in two decades, a process mocked at the time as a sham to seal authoritarian rule behind a democratic facade.

Its overtures have since included calls for peace with ethnic minority groups, some tolerance of criticism, an easing of media controls, the release of about 200 political prisoners and more communication with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, freed last year from 15 years of house arrest.

Labour unions have been legalised and President Thein Sein, a retired general but the first civilian head of state in half a century, suspended a $3.6 billion, Chinese-led dam project on Sept. 30, a victory for supporters of Suu Kyi and a sign Myanmar may yield to popular resentment over China's growing clout.

"SIGNIFICANT DEVELOPMENTS"

Natalegawa was speaking after discussing Myanmar with other ASEAN foreign ministers at the start of a week of diplomatic meetings in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

"I get the sense that those who have spoken, and all have spoken I think, they all recognise the important and significant developments that are taking place in Myanmar over the recent past and want to maintain that momentum," he said.

But allowing Myanmar to assume chairmanship of ASEAN could provoke Western boycotts of some ASEAN meetings, an embarrassment for the region of 600 million people at a time when it wants to be seen as a counterpoint to China's growing influence in Asia.

The United States and European Union have applauded the freeing of political prisoners but said they want to see more reforms before considering lifting economic sanctions imposed in response to rights abuses by Myanmar's former military leaders.

Derek Mitchell, special U.S. envoy for Myanmar, has said violence has continued against ethnic minorities in the rural north and east and there were "credible reports" of continuing human rights abuses against women and children.

Myanmar's government is preparing to release prisoners under an amnesty, for the second time in just over a month, "very soon" and more political detainees should be among them, a senior official said on Sunday. Details of the amnesty would become clear within two days, the official said.

Diplomats say other factors play into Myanmar's desire to open up, like a need for technical assistance from the World Bank and other multilateral institutions that cut off ties years ago in response to rights abuses, including deadly crackdowns on pro-democracy uprisings.

There has been growing frustration in Southeast Asia over Myanmar's isolation as the region approaches a European Union-style Asian community in 2015.

Natalegawa met recently with Myanmar's leaders in Yangon and with Suu Kyi, the first meeting by an ASEAN chair with the democracy leader.

(Editing by Paul Tait)

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