Myanmar charter vote a first step: Asean
Tue, Feb 12, 2008

BANGKOK - MYANMAR'S ruling generals should be given the benefit of the doubt if they are serious about moving the country toward democracy, Surin Pitsuwan, chief of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), said on Tuesday.

'It has to begin somewhere and now it has a clear, definite beginning,' Mr Surin said of the junta's planned May referendum on an army-written constitution, followed by elections in 2010.

'I think it is a development in the right direction,' the former Thai foreign minister told Reuters on the sidelines of a business seminar in Bangkok.

The announcement by the military, which has ruled the former Burma in various guises since 1962, has been derided as a 'sham' by the United States and pro-democracy activists who say the vote will be held in a 'climate of fear'.

Mr Surin said the international community's growing frustration at Myanmar's intransigent generals was understandable, but he said they should be given a chance to fulfil their pledges.

'Everybody has their own agenda on the issue,' said Mr Surin, who leads one of the few international groupings that allow Myanmar into the club.

'We have to wait and see how things are going to develop and unfold. Whether these steps are going to lead to true national reconciliation which is what people inside have been asking for and the international community has been waiting for,' he said.

The army held elections in 1990, but refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which boycotted the constitution-drafting process while its leader remained under house arrest.

Although not yet completed, snippets of the charter revealed in state-controlled media suggest the army commander-in-chief will be the most powerful figure in the country, able to appoint key ministers and assume power 'in times of emergency'.

Mr Surin said Myanmar's announcement would be discussed by Asean foreign ministers meeting in Singapore later this month.

'I am sure they will be very keen to ask some questions and to consult among themselves how they can contribute or help,' said Mr Surin, who was critical of Myanmar when he served as Thailand's foreign minister from 1997-2000.

Western governments have called on Myanmar's neighbours - Asean, India and China - to put pressure on the generals after they ordered the army to crush the biggest pro-democracy protests in 20 years last September.

Despite rare expressions of discomfort at last September's crackdown, in which at least 31 people were killed, Myanmar's neighbours refuse to contemplate sanctions, saying words are more effective tools. -- REUTERS

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