In an unusual public rebuke, Southeast Asian leaders have called Burma's military junta to task for its repression of the nation's pro-democracy movement. While their action is welcome, hopefully it is just the first step in increasing pressure on the generals in Rangoon to begin reforms that address the broader political issues that are keeping their country down.
Foreign ministers from member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Singapore expressed their "deep disappointment" with Burma's continued detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They also called for the junta that for decades has ruled the nation with an iron grip to hold "meaningful dialogue" with opposition figures.
ASEAN is a consensus-based organization that is loath to speak out on the internal affairs of its members. Given that human rights figured prominently in the meeting’s agenda and the political climate in Burma has deteriorated over the past year, the organization may have decided the time was right to speak out.
They also were encouraged by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who credited ASEAN with growing influence in Rangoon. She said the group was instrumental in persuading the junta to reverse its initial obstruction of assistance and accept international aid after Cyclone Nargis killed at least 78,000 people along the Irrawaddy Delta in May. She urged the group to continue engaging Burma to push it toward democracy.
Indeed, it's in the interests of both the Burmese people and ASEAN nations concerned about regional stability that the generals be persuaded to release all political prisoners and engage in a genuine dialogue with democratic and ethnic minority leaders in order to begin a credible transition to democracy.