Sunday

18th Nov 2018

Burma to overshadow EU-ASEAN talks in Germany

EU foreign ministers will sit down next to their southeast Asian counterparts at a two-day meeting on Wednesday (14 March) in Nuremburg, hoping to sketch out a free-trade deal between the two regions with Burma's military junta overshadowing talks.

The EU-ASEAN ministerial that takes place every two years will be co-chaired by German and Cambodian foreign ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Hor Namhong. The ASEAN countries include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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On the eve of the meeting, EU foreign affairs commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said that "EU relations with ASEAN are becoming increasingly dynamic" and added that relations could be "ready to shift up a gear."

"We applaud the initiatives that ASEAN is taking to bring the benefits of deeper regional cooperation to southeast Asia," she said, adding the EU "will continue to do all we can to support ASEAN in this, to help bring greater stability and prosperity to the region."

The foreign ministers are set to adopt a so-called "Vision Statement" calling for closer political relations at bilateral and multilateral level with lists of the areas to include joint actions in security, energy, environmental and development matters.

The EU is one of ASEAN's top trading partners, with bilateral trade totalling €116 billion in 2005.

But behind the official EU line, Europe is deeply concerned about the activities of the military junta in Burma in a situation that may hinder full-scale free-trade negotiations with the ASEAN region, newswires report.

The EU and the US accuse the junta of massive-scale human rights abuses and suppression of political dissent, including the now 17-year house arrest of pro-democracy leader and Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Germany's Mr Steinmeier will personally express European concerns to Burma's foreign minister U Nyan Win diplomats said, according to AFP, with the EU also considering action at UN Human Rights Council level against Rangoon.

The EU is also prepared to commit up to €10 million to a humanitarian package for Burma, to treat conditions such as tuberculosis and malaria as a sign of goodwill.

Berlin's words are likely to fall on deaf ears however, as Burma has repeatedly refused to implement reforms demanded by its bigger ASEAN neighbours as well as freezing UN missions from entering the country in a situation described as an international relations "vacuum" by NGO Human Rights Watch.

The last time an EU state, Finland in 2006, gave the Burmese foreign minister a visa to enter Europe - multilateral human rights talks are an exception to the EU's travel ban on Burmese officials - Burmese exile groups in the EU raised a furore.

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EU states are wary of a US suggestion to push for speedy action on Burma at the United Nations Human Rights Council, with the UK saying the move is premature and Finland saying it is unrealistic and may not add value to existing international measures.

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