Malaysia foreign minister to visit Myanmar to assess progress of democracy

Malaysia's foreign minister said Friday his planned visit to Myanmar to assess the progress of democracy does not amount to interference in the affairs of the military-ruled country. "Even when I do visit Myanmar it will be done quietly. The visit is not interference. It is just to have a good feel of what they are doing," Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told reporters.

The secretive junta, which has not allowed even U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail into the country since March 2004, agreed to Syed Hamid's visit after intense pressure by the Association of Southeast East Asian Nations at its annual summit here this week.

In a statement after the summit, ASEAN urged Myanmar to "expedite" the moves it has pledged to take for restoring democracy, a departure from the grouping's stand of not interfering in the internal affairs of members. ASEAN also called on the junta to free detainees. Although it did not name Aung San Suu Kyi, the reference to the pro-democracy leader was clear.

Syed Hamid refused to discuss details of his plans, including whether he would try to meet Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since May 2003. He also refused to confirm a statement by the Thai foreign minister that the visit would take place in January.

"I am not going to make any statement that can jeopardize the nature of my visit. There are high expectations but whatever I do is a mandate from ASEAN and an invitation from Myanmar," he said. Syed Hamid said details of the visit still need to be worked out. "We need to know the exact form and nature of the visit," he said.

Myanmar has become a pariah state in the West and an embarrassment for ASEAN because of its poor record in human rights and democratization. Its failure to fulfill pledges of democracy has increasingly angered fellow ASEAN members, who are also feeling pressure from the U.S., which calls Myanmar "an outpost of tyranny,” reports the AP. I.L.

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