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Southeast Asian grouping brushes of

Subject: Southeast Asian grouping brushes off US sanctions on Burma

US-Burma-ASEAN : Southeast Asian grouping brushes off US sanctions on Burma

by Roberto Coloma
SINGAPORE, April 24 (AFP) - Members of the Association of Southeast Asian 
Nations (ASEAN) have brushed aside US economic sanctions on Burma and are 
pressing ahead with preparations to admit Rangoon, diplomats said Thursday.
"ASEAN considers constructive engagement as the best way to facilitate 
(Burma's) economic liberalisation which in turn will bring about further 
internal changes," a Singapore foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement.
The city-state, which often refrains from commenting on international issues, 
implicitly criticised the US investment ban and made it clear that 
Washington's move would not affect the timing of Burma's admission into ASEAN.
The spokesman said "sanctions only work in cases where the economy of a 
country is plugged to the global economy," and reiterated that the admission 
of Burma, along with Cambodia and Laos, depends "on their readiness to join."
ASEAN-which groups Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, 
Thailand and Vietnam-has declared that it will admit all three at the same 
time once they meet the group's economic and other criteria.
The group, which is establishing a free-trade area, has not set a date, but 
analysts believe the three will be admitted this year to mark ASEAN's 30th 
anniversary. The newest member, Vietnam, was admitted in 1995.
Malaysia is chairing the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in July, followed by 
a summit in December. ASEAN foreign ministers will meet in Kuala Lumpur on May 
31 to discuss expansion plans and other issues.
Army-ruled Burma has been isolated in the West for military abuses against the 
opposition and ethnic minorities, but its neighbours say reform would be 
better promoted by bringing Rangoon into the international mainstream.
An ASEAN diplomat said Thursday that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad 
was keen to bring the three new members into the group this year.
"It is a big thing for him to bring in these three during Malaysia's watch," 
the diplomat told AFP, adding that the announcement of US sanctions may have 
been prompted by political considerations in Washington.
"I think that's for domestic consumption," he said, remarking that the 
sanctions could "take things away from Whitewater," referring to the property 
and loan scandal to which US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary have 
been linked by political opponents.
Mahathir said Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur that "we are going to work very hard" 
to get Burma into ASEAN.
Asked if Malaysia would protest against the US decision, Mahathir said Kuala 
Lumpur would first have to discuss the issue with the other ASEAN members.
Thai Prime Minister Chaowalit Yongchaiyudh said "we understand what the US has 
done, but ASEAN will stick to its agreements and our decision will not depend 
on other countries."
The US sanctions were announced Tuesday by Secretary of State Madeleine 
Albright, who said they were in response to severe restrictions imposed by the 
military on the activities of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her 
National League for Democracy (NLD).
China has denounced the US sanctions. Even Japan and Australia, which have 
criticized the Burmese junta's record, refused to go along with Washington.
ASEAN's policy of constructive engagement involves increased investment and 
trade coupled with quite diplomatic prodding to promote modernisation, 
democracy and respect for human rights in Burma.
Singapore and Thailand are among the leading foreign investors in 
resource-rich Burma. ASEAN leaders fear that the sudden collapse of the 
Burmese regime could trigger the break-up of the ethnically diverse country 
and spread instability to its neighbours.