Southeast Asian nations press Myanmar's generals to get serious about democracy

Southeast Asian nations pressed Myanmar's generals to get serious about democracy as they opened a summit Monday aiming for broader Asian integration, an uphill task as shown by a feud raging between China and Japan. Military-ruled Myanmar's failure to fulfill its pledge to restore democracy and its continued house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has become the biggest political challenge facing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

With the bloc's frustrations with fellow member Myanmar reaching a boiling point, the summit's Malaysian host, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was expected to issue a statement urging Myanmar to take more definite steps.

"There will be an announcement by the chairman," Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told reporters before joining counterparts in the summit room at a Kuala Lumpur convention center. ASEAN leaders pushed to send a delegation to Myanmar to assess its progress toward democracy. An ASEAN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Monday that Myanmar had accepted a visit by Malaysia's foreign minister.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International welcomed the moves, but said it hoped that ASEAN's words would be backed up by strong action. "There is a need for ASEAN member states to press Myanmar harder for change," said Amnesty's Asia-Pacific director Purna Sen, adding that political prisoners "should be immediately and unconditionally be released for the peaceful exercise of their rights."

ASEAN's annual leaders retreat was to be followed by meetings with other regional powers, culminating in Wednesday's inaugural East Asia Summit, which joins the 10-nation bloc with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Russia will attend as an observer. The final meeting will deal with still-vague plans for setting up a regional economic community accounting for half the world's population and a combined economy of US$8.3 trillion (euro7 trillion).

But tensions between heavyweights China and Japan are just one example of the vast hurdles in those efforts.

China has called off a planned meeting in Kuala Lumpur with leaders of Japan and South Korea in anger over Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a Tokyo war shrine that honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including those executed for war crimes. The visits also have angered South Korea.

China and South Korea, both occupied by Japanese forces before 1945, say Japan has not fully atoned for wartime atrocities.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao raised the issue during his bilateral meeting Monday with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, said Roh aide Chung Woo-sung.

"Japan's leader paid respect at Yasukuni Shrine five times, hurting the feelings of South Korean and Chinese people very much and putting a lot of obstacles to China-Japan relations as well as Korea-Japan relations," Chung quoted Wen as saying.

Koizumi made no immediate comment on the feud after arriving in Kuala Lumpur late Sunday. He earlier played down the tensions as "temporary" and said they wouldn't undermine Japan's regional influence, Japan's Kyodo News agency reported, reports the AP. I.L.

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