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Cook's opium war broadside backfires

The risks of the Labour Party's new "ethical" foreign policy have been dramatically illustrated with the threat of a boycott of a summit meeting in London by Asian countries determined to show solidarity with the military government of Burma.

The threat was made by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, hours after a blistering attack on the Rangoon regime by the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. Dr Mahathir said members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) may not turn up to the second Asia-Europe Meeting, due to be held next April in London, if Britain refuses a place at the table for the Burmese junta.

"If there is discrimination against Myanmar [Burma], it is a discrimination against Asean," he said in Kuala Lumpur late on Monday night.

Earlier in Singapore, Mr Cook rounded off a five-day tour of South- East Asia by excoriating Burma's State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) as "not only a deeply repressive regime, but . . . also a deeply irresponsible regime" for its suppression of democracy and its collusion in the drugs trade. He said the common European policy of denying visas to members of the Slorc made it "impossible" for Burma to attend the Asia- Europe Meeting, which has hitherto brought together the EU, Asean, Japan, China and South Korea.

Despite vigorous opposition from Europe and America, Burma was formally admitted to Asean in July. But British diplomats say this does not automatically entitle it to a seat at the table in London. It seems Dr Mahathir's comments mark the opening salvo in what will be an increasingly tense battle in the run up to next spring's meeting. "The swords are being drawn," said one diplomat. "Malaysia is saying, `We would never dictate whom you bring to the table - why should we be dictated to by you?' The problem is not going to go away."

Mr Cook met with Dr Mahathir last week, though the Foreign Office was unable to say yesterday whether the question of Burma's attendance at the London meeting had come up directly.

Any boycott of the London meeting would be a devastating blow for relations between Europe and Asia but, for the moment, such an outcome appears highly unlikely. Dr Mahathir has a reputation for provocative sound-bites (he recently described the currency speculator, George Soros, as "a moron", after the Malaysia ringgit sank sharply on the exchanges) but he is a respected figure within Asean, with a disdain for what he regards as Western preaching on human rights issues.

Among the other Asean countries, Vietnam has already indicated its support for the Malaysian position, and the question is likely to dominate a meeting in Luxembourg next month of senior officials from Europe and Asia.

Any sign of a climb down over Burma would be damaging to Mr Cook's credibility after the strong line he has adopted over human rights, and which he emphasised throughout last week's trip. A Foreign Office spokesman yesterday ruled out any compromise. "The Foreign Secretary said what he said. If there was a complete U-turn within Burma, we'd be in a different situation," he said. "For quite some time now we've been pressing them to change their ways, but there is no evidence they've paid any heed."