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Reuters-FOCUS-ASEAN,EU meet despite

Subject: Reuters-FOCUS-ASEAN,EU meet despite Myanmar rights impasse 

FOCUS-ASEAN,EU meet despite Myanmar rights impasse
07:04 a.m. May 24, 1999 Eastern
By David Brunnstrom

BANGKOK, May 24 (Reuters) - Officials from the European Union and
Association of South East Asian Nations gathered on Monday for their first
bloc-to-bloc meeting in two years with ties still strained by Myanmar's
human rights record.

The joint cooperation committee meeting, which goes into full session on
Wednesday and Thursday, will discuss a programme for trade, economic and
industrial cooperation as well as initiatives on drugs and the environment.

The forum has twice been postponed since military-ruled Myanmar joined ASEAN
in 1997, but a compromise was finally reached allowing Myanmar to attend but
not speak.

``Everyone felt the meeting had to go ahead and so a certain compromise has
been reached,'' said Thai government spokesman Akapol Sorasuchart.

EU sanctions, which bar senior Myanmar officials from entering Europe,
forced cancellation of an ASEAN-EU foreign ministers' meeting earlier this
year after ASEAN said all its ministers should attend or none at all.

The sanctions were imposed because of Myanmar's treatment of its
pro-democracy opposition led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her party
won a 1990 election by a landslide, but the military ignored the result and
detained many of its members.

Myanmar delegate Aye Lwin, the director-general of the Yangon Foreign
Ministry's ASEAN affairs department, told Reuters he did not want to comment
on Myanmar's status at the meeting.

``It's a really sensitive arrangement Thailand has undertaken and I don't
want at this point in time to complicate things.''

However, asked about the EU sanctions, he replied: ``I think it's a pity
that they have a political agenda on Mynamar.''

Europe's chief delegate, European Commission Asia director Emiliano Fossati,
told Reuters the EU position on Myanmar was unchanged.

``We would like to see progress in the human rights situation and an overall
response to meet the desires of the people and up to now we have found no
such progress.''

``The European Union has very strong feelings about respect for human rights
and we consider that this is essential in order to have real economic


Senior Thai delegate Anucha Osathanond, director-general of Thailand's ASEAN
department, said he hoped the meeting would help pave the way for a foreign
ministers' meeting ``at a later date.''

But neither Anucha nor EU officials were optimistic this would get off the
ground soon given the EU ban on Myanmar officials.

``This meeting shows the EU and ASEAN are at least on talking terms,''
Anucha said. ``We last met in 1997, and since then things have backed up,
slowed down and some projects have expired.''

Asked if Thailand was irritated by the blockage caused by Myanmar's rights
record, he said: ``We are concerned about the human rights situation in

Fossati said the Bangkok meeting was a step forward.

``What we want to do is to try to move ahead from a situation where we have
very good relations but no concrete action apart from on the bilateral
level,'' he said.

Thailand came under fire at the weekend for defending Yangon by blocking an
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions conference on forced labour
and democracy in Myanmar, due to have started in Bangkok on Monday.

The confederation said Bangkok was allowing itself to be used by a country
with an appalling human rights record. This cast doubt on the credibility of
Thailand's current efforts to win the leadership of the World Trade
Organisation, it said.

A government spokesman said Bangkok believed it should not allow its soil to
be used to attack any other country, and defended Thailand's labour rights