ASEAN Envoy Expresses Mixed Feeling After Burma Visit

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations' special envoy to Burma is expressing mixed feelings about his recent visit to Rangoon and the prospects for democracy after decades of military rule. The comments came as the Burmese government held its first public event in the country's new capital, which was moved a few months ago from Rangoon to central Burma.

The ASEAN envoy, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur that he did not consider his trip last week to Rangoon a total success, but said he was happy with aspects of the visit.

"It is a good start," he said. "It is the first time that ASEAN is engaging."

Syed met Burmese Prime Minister Soe Win and other senior officials as part of an effort to inform ASEAN leaders on progress by the Burmese military leaders toward democracy.

Syed hoped to meet detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other dissidents during his visit, but said he was told she was under house arrest, and nobody could see her. He said the Burmese leaders told him they consider Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to have no more influence.

Concern has been growing in ASEAN that deteriorating conditions in Burma, one of its 10 members, are causing problems outside its borders, including drug-trafficking, people-smuggling, illegal immigration, and the spread of AIDS.

The secretary of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Burma, Teresa Kok, says parliamentary leaders in ASEAN are pressing for change.

"Now, in the key countries in ASEAN, we all have our Burma caucus, and we all try to discuss and meet on the issue of Burma, come up with press statements and speeches here and there," said Kok. "This is the role that we can play."

But she added that ASEAN does not seem to have much influence on the Burmese leaders.

Syed's visit to Burma was delayed for two months because the Burmese government said it was too busy moving the capital from Rangoon to Pyinmana, a small town 300 kilometers to the north.

The government began moving ministries to the site, which is still under construction, last November. Officials said they wanted a more strategically located center for command and control. But independent observers say a more important reason might be a desire to locate the seat of government away from Rangoon, which historically has been an opposition base.

The Burmese government held its first public ceremony Monday in the new capital to mark Armed Forces Day, the anniversary of the launch of Burma's struggle for independence.

The military junta's senior leader, General Than Shwe told some 10,000 troops on a recently-built parade ground that Burmese military and civilians were working to build a democratic state. But he said that this would take time, in order to avoid, what he called, a perilous situation that could lead to the country's annihilation.

The Burmese government nearly three years ago announced a seven-step road map to lead the country to democracy, after more than four decades of military rule.

The government has embarked on the first step - setting up a national convention to draft a constitution. But critics say the National League for Democracy and other opposition groups are excluded from the convention, and the plan is aimed at legitimizing the military's hold on power.