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PHNOM PENH : Leaders of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations yesterday called for the West to lift sanctions against Myanmar.

Asean leaders agreed Sunday’s by-elections in Myanmar would help open the country to democratic reforms and the West should recognise the achievement by lifting sanctions.

“Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, as the chairman of Asean this year, put forward a proposal to lift sanctions against Myanmar, and this was supported by all the leaders,” Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.

It was now Cambodia’s job to explain the issue to the West.

Mr Surin said the move to end sanctions against Myanmar came after successful by-elections in Myanmar of which Asean can be proud.

“This is a major step for national reconciliation in Myanmar and it will allow Myanmar to integrate in Asean and the world community,” he said.

Myanmar will chair the Asean grouping in 2014.

He said the opening up of Myanmar to the wider world and increasing stability inside the country is also beneficial to Thailand and other Asean members as it would help connect the region to China and India, the two biggest emerging markets.

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the bloc’s leaders have announced the Drug-Free Asean by 2015 programme to eradicate illicit drug production, processing, trafficking and use in the region in the next three years.

Thailand has put itself forward as host for the upcoming Asean ministerial meeting on drugs.

During the leaders’ meeting, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra asked other Asean countries to work together to tackle the haze problem affecting Thailand’s North, and neighbouring countries’ border areas.

Thailand will host the Asean meeting on border crossing management on June 13-14 to talk about human trafficking, money laundering and rules and regulations of connectivity, Mr Surapong said.

Meanwhile, Hun Sen yesterday officially opened the Asean Summit calling for all policies to be implemented to ensure the Asean Economic Community comes into being by 2015 as scheduled by Asean member states.

He called for the region to prepare for possible impacts from a financial crisis that may spread from the European Union, and urged finance ministers to speed up the doubling of the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation Agreement reserves pool from US$120 billion to US$240 billion.

They should also prepare a plan for the free flow of goods, services, investment and skilled labour in the bloc.

The region also needs to be better prepared for the possible impacts of natural disasters, as there have been a number of catastrophes in Asean countries in recent years including the Thai floods last year, he said.

Clinton in Myanmar to urge reform

Posted by arnon_k On December - 1 - 2011 ADD COMMENTS

(Reuters) – Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years Wednesday, launching an historic mission to press the reclusive country’s new leaders to sever illicit contacts with North Korea and deliver on reforms.

Clinton’s blue-and-white official plane touched down at the airport in Naypyitaw, the remote new capital of the country formerly known as Burma, starting a three-day visit which will see her meet the new military-backed civilian leadership and hold discussions with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Clinton is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar since John Foster Dulles in 1955, and her visit caps a period of rapid and remarkable transformation in the Southeast Asian country, a virtual international pariah since the military seized power in a coup in 1962 starting decades of brutal authoritarian rule.

The visit, announced by President Barack Obama at a regional summit in earlier this month, could also open a new arena of U.S. competition with China, which has watched warily as Washington courts its resource-rich southern neighbor as part of a broader policy of increasing U.S. engagement in Asia.

Clinton will meet President Thein Sein and other senior officials in Naypyitaw Thursday, giving her the chance to personally assess their commitment to a reform process that is gaining momentum following elections last November which saw the military nominally hand over power to civilian officials.

Clinton scrambled to leave South Korea on schedule in order to make it to Myanmar before sunset. The capital’s airfield has no lights for evening landing, and her plane had to depart to overnight in Bangkok because there was insufficient security to leave it on the ground, U.S. officials said.

Clinton emerged from the plane in a bright pink blazer and walked down the staircase to greet a small number of Myanmar officials in a decidedly low-key welcome. The airport, little more than an airfield on the outskirts of the newly-built city, was adorned with a welcoming banner — but it was for the prime minister of Belarus, who arrives Thursday on a separate visit.

Clinton got her first views of the country from the windows of a motorcade, which bumped along a newly-built but uneven highway past rice fields and building sites. At each intersection, policemen solemnly held up their hands to stop non-existent traffic in a city with few people and fewer cars.

A senior U.S. State Department official said Clinton would urge Myanmar’s new leaders — many of them until recently top generals — to break off secret military deals with North Korea, another isolated state whose rogue nuclear program has spurred fears across East Asia and drawn international sanctions.

“Our discussions will be around seeking much stronger assurances … of a determination on the part of the government to discontinue activities that we believe are antithetical to the maintenance of peace and stability,” the official told reporters aboard Clinton’s plane.

U.S. officials say they believe Myanmar has sought missile technology from North Korea, but played down concerns that this cooperation had broadened to include a nuclear program.

“To date our primary area of focus is the missiles,” the official said. “We’ve looked at this fairly carefully and we do not see signs of a substantial nuclear effort at this time.”

U.S. MULLS RECIPROCAL GESTURES

Disrupting Myanmar’s tentative alignment with Pyongyang would be a major diplomatic bonus for the United States, but U.S. officials said Clinton would also keep up pressure for more reforms at home by offering reciprocal U.S. gestures if democratic changes deepened.

U.S. officials have said Myanmar — long seen as a major human rights violator — needs to release all political prisoners and make progress in ending bloody conflicts with ethnic minority groups before Washington can consider lifting crippling economic sanctions imposed two decades ago.

“The secretary comes with a series of very specific steps that we’d like to see in terms of the next phase of the process that is under way,” the U.S. official said.

“We expect this to be a very thorough review of not only the steps that they have taken, and what we expect to see in the future, but the things that the United States is prepared to do in response.”

Potential symbolic moves such as easing travel restrictions on top Myanmar officials or returning a full U.S. ambassador to the country after years of a more junior-level representation could bolster reformers in the government, who are still thought to face some opposition from entrenched military interests.

But Clinton has played down the prospect for any rapid easing of sanctions, most of which would require action by Congress where some lawmakers remain skeptical of the reform effort.

“Secretary Clinton’s visit represents a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose DNA remains fundamentally brutal,” Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the powerful head of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “The enforcement of tough sanctions … is needed to bring about the needed political change in Burma.”

Clinton will travel to the main commercial city of Yangon Thursday and make an offering at the city’s imposing Shwedagon Pagoda, whose golden spire has long been a revered symbol of Myanmar’s nationhood.

She will also hold two meetings with Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate and democracy advocate who spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention before being released last November. It will be Clinton’s first chance to personally compare notes with the pro-democracy heroine, who often draws comparisons with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

At a private dinner Thursday, and again at a formal meeting at Suu Kyi’s home Friday, the two are expected to discuss Suu Kyi’s plans to stand in coming by-elections, which would bring her into the formal political process.

Clinton will also meet civil society activists and representatives of ethnic minorities. Conflict between minority guerrillas and the military in border areas may be among the most difficult of Myanmar’s political problems to resolve.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei welcomed warmer ties between Myanmar and Western countries.

Asked whether Myanmar’s process of opening would undermine China’s interests, Hong told a briefing: “We believe that Myanmar and the concerned Western country should strengthen contacts and improve relations on the basis of mutual respect, and we hope that steps like this will help Myanmar’s stability and development.”

(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Naypyitaw and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Editing by Robert Birsel and Yoko Nishikawa)

(CNN) — Myanmar has made some progress toward political reforms, democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi said Monday on the one-year anniversary of her release from years of house arrest.

Speaking in Yangon on Monday, she told journalists and diplomats that in addition to her yearnings for political freedom for the country, she “deeply believed that the president also wants a change.”

Suu Kyi has met repeatedly with President Thein Sein and the country’s minister for labor and for social welfare, relief and resettlement, Aung Kyi, since her release from house arrest a year ago.

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, plans to meet Friday, she said, to discuss the possibility of registering the party with election officials and standing candidates for election.

Since the release of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the country’s military-controlled government has won limited praise from international human rights groups for making some progress toward political freedoms.

Human Rights Watch reported this month that Sein’s administration has loosened restrictions on the media and passed laws protecting basic human rights. Suu Kyi has also been given freedom to travel and access to the international media, the group reported. But the government’s tight grip on the country — particularly at the local level — has not relaxed, Human Rights Watch reported.

The country continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners and has not moved to repeal repressive laws that limit free speech and assembly, the group said.

“With this backdrop, it is too early to know whether the government’s change of tone and talk of reform is cynical window-dressing or evidence that significant change will come to the country,” the group wrote in a briefing paper.

(CNN) — A powerful earthquake hit Myanmar Thursday near its borders with China, Thailand and Laos, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The quake hit in eastern Myanmar, about 55 miles (89 km) north of Chiang Rai, Thailand, the survey reported.

It had a magnitude of 6.8, the survey said, revising the estimate down from an initial reading of 7.0.

One person was killed by a roof collapsing in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s MCOT network reported, and tremors were felt in the capital Bangkok, 479 miles (772 km) south of the epicenter.

It was a relatively shallow quake, which can be very destructive.

The Geological Survey initially said the quake had a depth of 142 miles (230km), but it later revised its estimate to say the quake was 6 miles (10 km) deep, putting it fairly close to the surface.

An aftershock hit about half an hour later, with a preliminary magnitude of 4.8 and a depth of 6 miles, the USGS said.

The center of the quake was 365 miles (589 km) northeast of Rangoon, the former capital of Myanmar.

It was 104 miles (168 km) south-southwest of Yunjinghong, Yunnan, China.

A destructive tsunami is not expected, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, has been badly hit by natural disasters in the past few years.

A powerful cyclone in 2008 left an estimated 100,000 people dead, and another one two years later left 70,000 people homeless, the United Nations estimates.

The quake was significantly less powerful than the one that hit Japan two weeks ago, causing a tsunami, leaving thousands dead or missing, and prompting fears of a nuclear meltdown.

It was roughly comparable in magnitude and depth to last year’s Haiti earthquake, which measured 7.0. More than 200,000 people died in the Haiti earthquake, and millions were affected.

That quake’s center was only nine miles below the surface and near congested population centers. Scientists said if the quake had been centered deeper down, the damage would not have been as severe.

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