ASEAN welcomes Myanmar vote ahead of summit

PHNOM PENH - Asian foreign ministers on Monday welcomed Myanmar's "orderly" elections as they met ahead of a regional summit that will also be dominated by North Korea's planned rocket launch and maritime disputes.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers held talks in Phnom Penh after historic by-elections in member-state Myanmar appeared to give opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi her first seat in parliament.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said Sunday's polls, in which Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy claimed 43 of the 44 seats up for grabs, seemed to have gone well despite claims of irregularities.

He said it was too early to determine whether the vote was free and fair, but ASEAN observers were "very encouraged by the orderly manner of this important democratic exercise".

It was ASEAN's hope that the vote would contribute to the "reintegration of Myanmar into the global community", Surin said after the ministers' meeting.

Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told his counterparts the vote "has gone rather smoothly, orderly and the participation has been very high," Surin said.

Suu Kyi hailed a "victory of the people" but warned against triumphalism after her apparent win in elections seen as a test of the regime's reforms.

Over the past 12 months Myanmar's quasi-civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, has freed hundreds of political prisoners, eased media restrictions and welcomed the opposition back to the political fold.

At the last ASEAN summit in November, the country was rewarded for its efforts by being promised the bloc's chairmanship in 2014.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa welcomed the by-elections as "an opportunity for Myanmar to make the reform process even more irreversible".

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said they were a "vindication of the global community that believed that Myanmar could pursue this democratisation track effectively".

The European Union has indicated it is looking at easing sanctions imposed on Myanmar in the mid-1990s over the regime's long history of human rights abuses, and foreign investors are lining up to do business in the country.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters in Turkey, said Sunday the elections were "heartening" but urged the government to improve transparency and deal with polling irregularities.

"It is too early to know what the progress of recent months means and whether it will be sustained," she said.

Suu Kyi herself said ahead of the polls that they could not be considered genuinely democratic due to widespread problems such as intimidation of voters.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - a grouping of nearly 600 million people of hugely disparate economic, development and political systems.

Del Rosario said the ministers spoke with one voice against North Korea's planned rocket launch, which Pyongyang describes as a bid to send a satellite into orbit but which the United States and others see as a missile test.

The Philippines - which lies beneath the rocket's proposed flight path - has lodged formal protests with Pyongyang's representatives at the United Nations, in China and at ASEAN.

"I think the countries that spoke on the topic... were all of the opinion that we should be discouraging (North Korea) from undertaking that launch," Del Rosario said.

ASEAN's two-day summit begins Tuesday.

The bloc has often been dismissed as a talking shop but it has assumed new strategic importance in light of Washington's foreign policy "pivot" to Asia and the economic rise of China in recent years.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Phnom Penh on the eve of the summit, amid tensions between Beijing and several ASEAN member states over rival territorial claims in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea.

The Philippines, which has recently expanded military ties with its treaty ally the United States, has joined Vietnam in accusing China of taking an increasingly aggressive posture in recent years.

But Del Rosario said a proposed Code of Conduct could be finalised this year, a decade after China and ASEAN agreed to craft a set of rules to avoid small incidents escalating into major conflicts.

During Indonesia's chairmanship of ASEAN least year, the regional bloc and China agreed on a set of guidelines for the proposed code, ending a nine-year impasse.

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