US Wants SE Asia to Press Burma on Reform

By Mark Mayne | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Bangkok ( - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has urged Thailand to pressure Burma's military junta to move toward greater openness and democracy. Her comments come amid signs that the U.S. is losing patience with Southeast Asian countries' apparent reluctance to tackle Burma's abuses.

Burma's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) partners have pleaded a policy of non-interference in member states' domestic affairs.

Controversially, Burma is scheduled to assume chairmanship of the 10-nation grouping in 2006.

"We are encouraging all of our partners, including Thailand, who have contacts with Burma to press the case for human rights and greater openness, and to press the case for human rights activists like Aung San Suu Kyi," she told reporters in Thailand, where she held meetings with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon.

The Secretary of State's visit to Thailand was primarily aimed at reviewing the country's efforts to rebuild coastal areas damaged by the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster, but Burma also featured in the meetings.

Thaksin's government has been internationally criticized for not taking a firmer line with Burma, which is subject to U.S. and European sanctions over its poor human rights record and failure to introduce democracy.

The country's pro-democracy icon, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest several times, most recently since May 2003, when she was detained after her convoy was attacked by a pro-government mob.

Rice said Suu Kyi was "someone who represents the possibility of reconciliation" for Burma, and deplored the lack of action from the ruling junta.

"We hear representations that there will be progress, but there seems never to be progress."

Rice has sparked controversy in the region over her decision not to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum later this month. She will be the first U.S. secretary of state in 20 years to miss the event, which this year is being held in Vientiane, Laos.

"I'm very sorry that I'm not going to be able to go to the ASEAN summit this year because I think this is a vital organization with which we want to engage more," she said.

Rice explained that she had "other essential travel ... in roughly the same timeframe."

She refused to say whether Burma's scheduled chairing of the 10-nation grouping was the reason for the decision to stay away.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said Monday his government hoped Rice's no-show was not a sign that the U.S. was "losing interest in the region."

The ASEAN Regional Forum is Asia's primary security gathering, grouping ASEAN's 10 members with countries including the U.S., Japan, Australia, Russia, India, China and the two Koreas.

The U.S. will be represented at the meeting by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.

Rice also commented on instability in southern Thailand, home to the mostly Buddhist country's Muslim minority.

"This is a matter for Thailand to deal with," she said. "And we have confidence that Thailand will do precisely that.

"The threat of extremism is a threat that is worldwide," Rice said, noting that it had been manifested in Southeast Asia as well as in the U.S. and in Britain.

"This is a worldwide problem, and we are intensifying counter terrorism cooperation. We've had training and technical assistance on some of these matters with Thailand."

Rice is the third prominent U.S. official to visit Thailand this year. Last month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discussed post-tsunami relief efforts with Thaksin and his defense chief.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, joined by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, surveyed the devastation in January.

A 9.1 magnitude earthquake on Dec. 26 triggered a tsunami that killed more than 176,000 people in 11 countries across the Indian Ocean. The U.S. government deployed military assets and committed $350 million to the relief effort.

In May, President Bush signed a bill providing $907 million for tsunami-related expenses and aid.
(CNSNews International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)

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