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Southeast Asian grouping brushes of (r)

Subject: Southeast Asian grouping brushes off            US sanctions on Burma

Southeast Asian grouping brushes off
           US sanctions on Burma

           (Incorporates US-Burma-Singapore. Graphic.)

           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,
           said Thursday.

           "ASEAN considers constructive engagement as the best way to
           (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
           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

           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
           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

           ASEAN's policy of constructive engagement involves increased
investment and
           trade coupled with quite diplomatic prodding to promote
           democracy and respect for human rights in Burma.

           Singapore and Thailand are among the leading foreign investors in
           Burma. ASEAN leaders fear that the sudden collapse of the Burmese
           could trigger the break-up of the ethnically diverse country and
           instability to its neighbours.