Friday, May 22, 2009

EU ministers to press Myanmar on Suu Kyi trial

By John Ruwitch

HANOI (Reuters) - European foreign ministers will press Myanmar at an Asia-Europe meeting next week to end the trial of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but analysts expect only lukewarm backing from their Asian counterparts.

The Suu Kyi trial, which entered its fifth day on Friday, has sparked outrage in the West, and the European Union is considering tougher sanctions against the military government.

In Asia, no government has gone beyond chastising the regime for putting the Nobel Peace laureate on trial for breaking the terms of her house arrest after an American man swam uninvited to her lakeside home.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Monday Myanmar would be discussed at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Foreign Ministers' meeting in Hanoi on Monday and Tuesday. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is expected to attend the meeting.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Suu Kyi faced a "show trial," adding: "We...need to make sure that the Burmese regime understands fully the risks that it's taking."

The EU ministers said it was incumbent upon Myanmar's neighbors to try to sway the regime through political pressure.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, has said trial threatened the regime's "honor and credibility" and repeated a call for her release.

ASEAN, however, has historically opted for non-interference over confrontation and does not follow its words with actions in cases like this.

Myanmar's main backer, China, has already said Myanmar should be left alone to handle its internal affairs.

Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar's economy at Australia's Macquarie University, said China was the "big elephant in the room" and hinted that Beijing may ultimately be arm-twisted into playing a constructive role.

"It protects the regime in so many ways," he said.

"There are aspects of the Burmese regime that are quite impervious to pressure, but a group that may not be impervious to pressure is China."


Resource-hungry China considers Myanmar an important partner, and the two signed a contract in March to build cross-border oil and gas pipelines which would help China cut oil cargoes' long detour through the congested Malacca Strait.

Aung Zaw, editor of the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine which reports on Myanmar, criticized Western governments for failing to take tougher action against the regime, such as cracking down on Western oil firms that operate there.

In a commentary in Friday's Bangkok Post, he said U.S. and European leaders should put pressure on the leaders of China, India, Russia and Thailand, "countries which are among the principal backers of the regime."

But Joseph Cheng of City University of Hong Kong said that despite Asia's distaste for some of the junta's actions, there was no political will to force them to do anything.

"We see no substantial political will from countries, say, like Japan, like Indonesia and Thailand. They are the kind of countries that can take the initiative...," Cheng said.

If found guilty, Suu Kyi could be jailed for up to five years. Critics say the trial is scripted and aimed at silencing the charismatic leader of the National League for Democracy until after elections in 2010 in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi has been detained for more than 13 of the past 19 years, most of them at her home in Yangon, guarded by police, her mail intercepted and visitors restricted.

(Additional reporting by Kittipong Soonprasert in Bangkok, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing)
(Editing by Darren Schuettler and Valerie Lee)

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