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Britain snubs Burmese entry to Asean

In a move that was immediately welcomed by human rights groups, a senior British official yesterday boycotted a ceremony honouring the admission of the Burmese military junta into the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).

The ceremony, at a hotel in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, marked the culmination of a controversy which began a year ago, when the seven members of Asean formally announced plans to admit Burma, along with Laos and Cambodia. The proposal caused immediate concern in the European Union and the United States, who refuse to recognise the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc), Burma's junta, which exerts ruthless power in the country despite being defeated in elections seven years ago by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

By the end of last year, it had become clear that Asean's mind was made up, and when the then Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, attended a meeting of European and Asian delegations in Singapore in February, he made little more than ritualistic references to the problem.

Yesterday, however, acting on instructions from the Foreign Office, the British High Commissioner to Malaysia, David Moss, failed to attend the ceremony, sending in his place a diplomat of lower rank.

"Bearing in mind the state of UK-Burma relations, it was deemed inappropriate," said a spokesman for the High Commission. The other two members of the EU troika, Luxembourg and Holland, as well as the United States, all sent their ambassadors to the ceremony, to the disgust of pro-democracy organisations who demonstrated outside the hotel.

"It's good that the UK has done this because for all these countries there is a serious question of credibility," said Fan Yew Teng, of the Burma Solidarity Group Malaysia. "It's one thing to impose sanctions on Slorc, but if you then turn up to their welcoming ceremony, what kind of message does that send?"

Until now, Britain's position has been in line with its European partners: an embargo on all arms sales, a bar on aid (apart from grass-roots support for humanitarian projects), but no formal trade embargo like that imposed by the US. Diplomats in Brussels attempted to agree on a common European solution to the problem of attendance at the ceremony but in the end the British went their own way, in keeping with Labour's commitment to the promotion of "human rights" and "ethical" foreign policy.

It is clear that despite the slackening of diplomatic pressure, East- West tensions over the issue have not abated, and much suspicion remains. This week, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mohamad Mahathir, even blamed the devaluation crisis sweeping Asian currency markets on "a certain powerful American financier", an apparent reference to billionaire speculator George Soros, who heads a foundation which promotes democracy in Burma.

The subject is likely to come up again on Sunday when Asean ministers meet their counterparts from China, Russia, the US, Japan and the EU at the Asean Regional Forum, a multilateral forum on defence and security. Asean argues that only by "constructive engagement" with Slorc can the junta be prevailed on to improve its record. But a report this week by Amnesty International, which describes extra-judicial executions, physical abuse of slave labourers, and forced relocation of villagers, suggests that little has changed since Burma was granted observer status at last year's Asean meeting.