Representatives of Asean—except Burma—and European Union member states unanimously called for Burma to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, according to a joint statement released at the close of the 17th Asean-EU Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh on Thursday.
The agenda for the two-day meeting called for discussions to focus on the global economic crisis and climate change, but international delegates said the political situation in Burma, also known as Myanmar, was raised repeatedly.
Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong said Thursday night that it was EU country representatives who insisted on discussing Mrs Suu Kyi’s trial for supposedly violating the terms of her house arrest.
“Many European delegations raised the issue of Myanmar. We Asean nations…wish that Myanmar can move ahead in the democratization process,” the foreign minister said in an interview.
In one of 43 separate points, the joint statement released Thursday said that, “The Ministers called for the early release of those under detention and the lifting of restrictions placed on political parties.”
However, it qualified that, “The Ministers affirmed their commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Myanmar…. They reiterated that the future of Myanmar [lies] in the hands of all of its people.”
Boguslaw Marcin Majewski, head of the EU Council delegation, said after Thursday’s meeting that the statement was made in the spirit of friendship.
“We would like to assist Myanmar in the process of democratization,” Mr Majewski said in an interview. “We cannot have democracy with limited freedom. You cannot have freedom with limited democracy.”
He added that he did not expect international pressure to have an immediate effect. “It is a slow process for messages like that to sink in and to be taken on board,” he said. “We are not hoping for immediate action; we are hoping for a reaction.”
Burma’s representative, Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint, spoke during Thursday’s morning session, and asserted his country’s right to prosecute Mrs Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. He called her trial an, “internal legal issue…. It’s not a human rights issue, so we don’t accept the pressure and interference from abroad.”
Mr Maung Myint also objected, repeatedly, to the EU’s refusal to refer to his country as Myanmar.
Finland’s minister of foreign affairs, Alexander Stubb, said during a break in the meeting that Mr Maung Myint’s address, “wasn’t a little speech, it was a long speech…. My simple comment to that is: When you see a democracy, you know it. When you see an authoritarian regime, you know it, and I think from today’s speech, it was quite easy to determine which is which.”
In a press conference at the conclusion of the meeting, Thai Foreign Minister and meeting co-chairman Kasit Piromya said that although he encouraged Burma to develop an “inclusive political process,” he respected Mr Maung Myint’s insistence on the, “principle of non-interference in internal affairs.”
But Michael Zimer-Jones, Denmark’s state secretary for foreign policy, said Thursday after the meeting that he did not accept that reasoning. “In the world today, such an issue cannot be treated as an internal issue,” he said. “The Myanmar government has itself committed to a democratic development.”
Although the situation in Burma dominated a news conference and media scrums on Thursday, the final nine-page joint statement on the meeting also emphasized cooperation between the EU and Asean in dealing with infectious diseases, terrorism and human trafficking, among many other regional and worldwide concerns.
Mr Stubb of Finland said that he also called for an “in-depth” free trade agreement between the two blocs.
“We’re probably facing one of the gravest crises in the history of at least my lifetime,” he said. “There is an atmosphere of protectionism, which I think we need to fight… We are all relatively small countries and completely dependant on free trade.”
The meeting officially opened on Thursday with a speech from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who did not mention Burma or Mrs Aung San Suu Kyi. He did, however, call for delegates to address several topics, including global pandemic diseases and drug trafficking, and appeared to chastise North Korea for its reported testing of nuclear weapons this week.
“I believe that the world is not safer or more peaceful when more countries have access to nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction,” the prime minister said.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)