Malaysia Blasts Burma for Slow Pace of Reform

The Malaysian government, set to host a meeting of South East Asian foreign ministers next week, has criticized Burma's military for its failure to progress on political reform. Malaysia's foreign minister accused the military of holding the Southeast Asian regional grouping hostage and undermining the group's credibility.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, says ASEAN will soon be unable to defend Burma against international criticism over the slow pace of its reforms.

Hamid said Friday that ASEAN feels it is being "held hostage" by the failure of Burma's military government to implement reforms. He said the issue could be passed over to the United Nations. Several countries have threatened to bring Burma's human rights and political record before the U.N. Security Council.

Hamid's comments were in a speech read for him in Kuala Lumpur at a conference of ASEAN lawmakers.

In his address, Hamid accused Burma of not trying "to cooperate or help itself."

Debbie Stothardt, the spokeswoman for the human rights group Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, was at the conference where Hamid's comments were issued. She says they mark a hardening in ASEAN's stance on Burma.

"We've never had this amount of heat applied to Burma before. It is very clear the mood is strengthening against the military regime," she said. "Certain ASEAN leaders are considering all options possible in order to move reforms forward in Burma."

Malaysia next week holds the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, and their dialogue partners, including the United States, Australia, China and the European Union. Burma is expected to be high on the agenda.

In 1997, Malaysia backed Burma's entry into ASEAN despite criticism by Western countries such as the United States and EU over Rangoon's human rights policy. Other ASEAN members indicated at the time they thought engaging with Rangoon would lead the government to ease its tight control.

In 2003 Burma's military announced a "road map" to elections and political reform, but little progress has been achieved. Most senior members of the opposition National League for Democracy, including the party's head, Aung San Suu Kyi, have been in detention for years.

In Thailand, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, a foreign ministry deputy permanent secretary, says Burma hurts ASEAN's international standing.

"We are concerned that the current situation in Myanmar has an overall effect on the image and credibility of ASEAN - that's a very important point that has been underscored by most - if not all the other ASEAN countries," Sihasak said.

But Sihasak adds that Thailand still supports "constructive dialogue and engagement" with Burma.

Burma's current military regime came to power in 1988. The military refused to hand over power to the NLD when the party won a landslide victory in national elections in 1990.