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A weekend summit involving US President Barack Obama and the premier of military-ruled Myanmar will be a “breakthrough” in ties between Southeast Asia and the United States, Singapore said Tuesday.
“The US has decided that its ASEAN policy will not be determined by its policy towards Myanmar,” Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“It’s a breakthrough because previous attempts at hosting a summit meeting were prevented because of the Myanmar issue.”
Yeo was speaking to reporters at annual meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Singapore, culminating in a weekend summit of 21 APEC leaders including Obama.
After the APEC summit concludes on Sunday, ASEAN’s 10 leaders, including Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein, are scheduled to hold an unprecedented meeting with the US president.
Hopes for US-ASEAN leaders’ summits have previously foundered on Washington’s refusal to sit down with Myanmar’s junta because of its suppression of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League For Democracy (NLD).
But the US administration last week sent senior officials to the isolated state in a bid to promote a new dialogue after years of shunning the junta.
Top Obama aide Jeffrey Bader said Monday the United States would no longer allow its longstanding differences with Myanmar to hold its ties with the rest of Southeast Asia hostage.
“The statement we’re trying to make here is that we’re not going to let the Burmese tail wag the ASEAN dog,” Bader, the senior official for Asia on Obama’s National Security Council, told reporters in Washington.
ASEAN has long been accused of ignoring human rights abuses in Myanmar. But as the United States has kept its distance, China has been busy deepening its own economic and diplomatic links with the fast-developing region.
Yeo, whose country is hosting both the APEC and ASEAN-US summits, said: “The US is now in direct talks with Myanmar, not all of it is publicised.”
A draft of the post-summit statement obtained by AFP said the ASEAN leaders “welcomed the high-level dialogue” and the new US policy to engage Myanmar.
“The leaders expressed their hope that this effort would contribute to broad political and economic reforms and the process will be further enhanced in the future,” the draft communique said.
It said the ASEAN and US leaders “underscored the importance of achieving national reconciliation” and that Myanmar elections to be held next year should be “free, fair, inclusive and transparent” to be credible.
The draft did not mention Suu Kyi or the NLD but it said the regime should “create the conditions for credible elections by initiating a dialogue with all stakeholders to ensure that the process is fully inclusive”.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean said in Singapore that he supported the US efforts to reach out to Myanmar, which is a member of ASEAN but not of the larger APEC grouping.
“We welcome it, we encourage it… the fact that the US has embarked upon this new initiative is very welcome,” Crean said.
“We’ve never seen sanctions as a solution against Myanmar because it hurts the people,” he said.
“What we’ve been trying to do is to get the necessary political reforms, the human rights reforms through other forms of pressure, political pressure.”
However, US officials caution that the administration will not lift US sanctions until Myanmar’s military leadership embraces change, and have no expectations of progress soon.
Top of the list of US demands is for the junta to immediately release Suu Kyi, who has spent two decades under house arrest.