‘Political situation in Burma needs to improve’

By Jim Pollard
The Nation on Sunday
Published on May 15, 2011

The possibility of Burma chairing Asean in 2014 and humanitarian concern over hundreds of thousands of displaced people in eastern Burma were among a range of matters discussed yesterday by Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and his Australian counterpart Kevin Rudd.

Kasit and Rudd spoke to reporters after having lunch at the Australian Embassy in Bangkok. The former Australian PM, now foreign minister, flew to Thailand early yesterday.

Kasit said Asean was obliged to consider the “totality” of Burma’s bid to chair the regional body in 2014.

“The credibility and respectability of Asean has to be looked at,” he said.

Other issues that had to be considered included the possible release of political prisoners, as well as the liberalisation of the political process, and dialogue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Kasit said.

The request by Burma for the Asean chair was discussed at the Asean summit last weekend but no decision is expected till later in the year.

Rudd said: “Australia wants to see continued and sustained improvement in Burma. We have deep concerns about the 2,000-plus political prisoners in detention.

“We are very glad that our friend and colleague [Indonesian foreign minister] Marty Natalegawa will visit there soon [to assess developments since the election last November].”

The Australian foreign minister avoided comment on the recent clashes on the Thai-Cambodian border, saying the situation was “a matter between the two countries”.

But he said they discussed the situation on the Thai-Burma border in detail and noted that Australia had given close to US$10 million (Bt300 million) over recent years to support the 140,000 refugees in nine camps along the border.

But there were challenges, he said, to provide support to a large number of people, which he put at several hundred thousand, “existing in a virtual no-man’s land” – displaced in eastern Burma.

Rudd said he had an “open mind” about whether to drop sanctions against Burma’s controversial military regime, but warned “we won’t make that decision unless things are going in the right direction”.

The pair also discussed changes to the East Asia Summit, which will be bolstered shortly by the presence of Russia and the US.

Rudd said trade between Thailand and Australia now totalled more than $20 billion and had enjoyed double-digit growth every year since the signing of a free-trade agreement in 2005.

“Our relationship has grown stronger over 60 years of diplomatic ties,” he said.