Malaysia angry over `arrogant' Burma boycott

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The Independent Online
As the chief apologist for one of the most reviled regimes in the world, the foreign minister of Burma, U Ohn Gyaw, does not often find himself the object of toasts, but this week has been an exception. On Tuesday, after years as an international leper, Burma was admitted as a full member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean). Mr Ohn Gyaw's pleasure has been obvious.

Dressed in his white national costume, he beamed as the Burmese flag took its place beside those of Asean's other eight members. On Sunday, however, when he sits down at a bigger gathering of fellow foreign ministers, it will feel more like the old days. At least two of those present in the room will refuse to talk to U Ohn Gyaw.

The occasion will be the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), a defence and security discussion group, consisting of Asean members plus their "dialogue partners", including the United States, China, Russia, Japan and Australia. Also present will be Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg, and the EU's rotating President, and Manuel Marin, the European Commissioner responsible for dealing with Asean. At last year's ARF meeting in Jakarta, the Europeans and the US made it clear they opposed Burma's membership. Now it is a fait accompli, they have a simple solution.

"We will try to avoid a clash with Asean, said one European official yesterday, "but we are bound by our common position, which says that no contact is possible with Burma. We will notice the presence of this person in the room, but we will not address him."

There will be tension at this weekend's talks near Kuala Lumpur. Despite accepting Burma's entry into Asean, European governments and the US are still determined to make their unhappiness obvious. But yesterday, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, gave a combative speech in which he insisted Asean would "resist and reject such attempts at coercion".

"Instead of encouraging Asean to accept all South-east Asian countries as soon as possible, Asean has been urged to pass judgement, deny membership, and apply pressure on a potential candidate so as to force that country to remain poor," he said.

He accused the Group of Eight leading economies of arrogance in deciding "that they, and they alone, should determine the fate of every country".

In a draft communique issued today by Asean leaders, the foreign ministers will call for expansion of the UN Security Council, increased food aid to North Korea, an end to the building of Israeli settlements, and will deplore the failure to capture Serbian war criminals.

Traditionally, the group has insisted on non-interference in other countries' internal affairs. But in the last fortnight, there has been a more direct policy, since the coup in Cambodia which caused its planned induction into Asean to be postponed. Asean has offered to take on a mediating role between the Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the man who deposed him, his co-prime minister, Hun Sen.