- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

UNITED NATIONS | A year after the Burmese government violently cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators, its neighbors and key foreign countries are still unable to agree on how to encourage reforms by the nation’s ruling generals.

The group convened on the sidelines of the annual U.N. meeting of world leaders, gathering coincidentally almost a year to the day since the junta’s security forces opened fire on monks and other protesters in Rangoon on Sept. 26, 2007.

Saturday’s high-level meeting on Burma, also known as Myanmar, produced little agreement about the next steps beyond a wary but ill-defined engagement by the United Nations.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his special adviser on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, are expected to be in the region for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in December, and the government has already extended them an invitation.

Mr. Ban “said he would go back, and when he goes back he must be very careful because expectations must be calibrated,” said Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo after the two-hour meeting of roughly 15 foreign ministers and ambassadors.

“He should not go back unless there are clear signs of progress,” Mr. Yeo said.

But the “friends of Myanmar,” as the group is known, could not agree on what benchmarks would warrant a U.N. political visit.

Mr. Ban and Mr. Gambari refused to speak to reporters afterward, instead issuing a brief statement that reiterates the secretariat’s call to Burma’s military government to release jailed democracy advocate and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and resume a discussions with the political opposition.

Burma’s neighbors - Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand - as well as China and Russia, wanted to give the junta credit for its release of several political prisoners last week. But the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Britain, Norway, South Korea and Australia were among those who felt the gesture did not go far enough.

Mr. Yeo did not answer reporters’ questions about whether ASEAN representatives think the conditions for a fifth visit by Mr. Gambari or a second visit by Mr. Ban should include the release of Mrs. Suu Kyi, as the EU and other Western countries insist.

Human rights monitors have rejected the “limited” release of political prisoners, noting that at least 2,000 are still in custody. Additionally, few nations accept the legitimacy of a recent referendum, which was held immediately after the deadly Cyclone Nargis slammed into the Irawaddy Delta and affirmed the junta’s ruling authority.

“For us, the political process does not appear to exist in Burma,” Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, told The Washington Times on Saturday. He praised the humanitarian cooperation that staved off a second wave of deaths by disease and starvation, but lamented that the government of Gen. Than Shwe was not more receptive to the outside world.

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