Asian Foreign Ministers Focus on North Korea, Burma

Southeast Asian foreign ministers meeting in the Philippines have again tried to push Burma to accelerate its promised democratic reforms. As VOA's Heda Bayron reports from the city of Cebu, the North Korean nuclear issue also featured high on the agenda in discussions between the ministers and their counterparts from Northern Asia and India.

Burma's sluggish reform process again overshadowed trade and political discussions as foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations opened their meetings in Cebu.

ASEAN summit spokesman Victoriano Lecaros says the ministers urged Burma, also known as Myanmar, to stick to its promised "roadmap" to democracy, issued in 2003. They also called for the freeing of top political prisoners, including the leaders of the opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD.

Lecaros says the Burmese, in their reply, blamed the NLD's boycott of the reform process for the slow progress.

"The Myanmar side informed ... that in their democratization process, which includes the writing of a new constitution, there has been a perceptible slackening of the interest ... of the NLD in taking part," he said. "But there is no mistaking that ASEAN's position ... for Myanmar to make significant progress toward democratization still stands."

Last year, Burma restarted an on-again, off-again constitutional convention, but little progress towards the completion of a new document has been made. Earlier this month, Burma released several thousand prisoners, but Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. The NLD says it will not participate unless she and other party leaders are freed.

Burma enters its 10th year as an ASEAN member this year, but the grouping has made little progress in persuading the junta to implement democratic reforms.

Burma's military government is facing pressure beyond ASEAN for democratization. The United States introduced a proposed U.N. resolution Tuesday, backed by the European Union among others, criticizing the situation in Burma as a serious risk to regional security.

ASEAN ministers refrained from taking sides on the resolution. China, Burma's major ally, is expected to veto it in the Security Council.

The ministers also focused on another isolated and problematic Asian country, North Korea, following that nation's first nuclear test in October.

ASEAN says it will initiate a second diplomatic track on the North Korean nuclear issue next month, to complement the three-year-old process hosted by Beijing aimed at persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

The last round of the sporadic talks, which also include Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States, ended in December with no agreement.

Pyongyang insists that it will not make any concessions on its nuclear programs unless the United States lifts financial sanctions imposed on the North for alleged counterfeiting and money-laundering activities.

Leaders of the 10 ASEAN nations meet Saturday in Cebu.

They will be joined Sunday by leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India and East Timor, and Australia and New Zealand will complete the roster Monday for the East Asia summit.