Burma main subject at Europe-Asia meeting

European and Asian foreign ministers meet in Vietnam from Monday with the global financial crisis top of the agenda–but with differences over Burma threatening to steal the headlines.

The two-day gathering in the communist state’s bustling capital Hanoi comes after official figures showed Europe’s economy slipping deeper into trouble, with France, Austria and Romania joining the list of nations in recession. The picture in Asia is also bleak, with blistering growth in China, India and Vietnam slowing sharply. And this week Japan, the world’s second biggest economy, posted its worst contraction on record.

The Foreign Ministers’ Meeting will discuss “measures to overcome the crisis and ways to promote economic cooperation,” said Doan Xuan Hung, Deputy Foreign Minister of Vietnam, which will chair the meeting. Seated around the conference table will be foreign ministers or high-ranking officials from the European Union, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Pakistan and India.

But the meeting takes place against the background of the ongoing trial of opposition democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in military-ruled Burma, for breaking the conditions of her long-time house arrest. One diplomat said the Burma issue might spark “a lot of discussions on the sidelines” of the ASEM meeting.

Several Western countries have criticised Burma’s junta for putting Aung San Suu Kyi on trial and ASEAN this week issued a rare expression of “grave concern.”

Burma’s Southeast Asian neighbours traditionally prefer not to be seen as intervening in the affairs of their members.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said earlier this week that the issue of Burma could be addressed at the Hanoi meeting.

“Our relationship with Burma is nearly non-existent and that makes it complicated from this point of view, but we’ll have to engage with the other countries in the region. Those are the ones who have a real possibility of influence,” he said, using the former name for Burma.

Bildt named no countries in particular but his Luxembourg counterpart Jean Asselborn said the European Union must talk in particular to the Chinese “so that they put pressure on” the Burma government. The EU’s three-member “Troika” is expected to meet with Burma Foreign Minister Nyan Win on the conference sidelines Monday morning, a European diplomat said. The “Troika” represents the European Union in external relations that fall within the scope of the common foreign and security policy.

There could also be a similar meeting with China, a close Burma ally, later on Monday, the diplomat added, unable to say what message would be conveyed to Nyan Win. Infectious diseases and climate change are also on the preliminary agenda for the meeting, diplomats say.



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