(New York) - The European Union’s attempts to engage with Burma by allowing the Burmese foreign minister to attend the annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) has failed to bring any improvements in human rights in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

The eighth ASEM foreign ministers’ meeting was held in Hamburg on May 28-29 and attended by 45 foreign ministers from Asia and Europe, and the EU High Representative for Common and Security Policy, Javier Solana.

“Permitting the Burmese foreign minister to attend the ASEM meeting only days after the military government had extended the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, despite international calls for her release, is a mark of the EU’s insufficient commitment to pressuring the military to give up power in Burma,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The European Union has had an inconsistent policy on permitting Burmese officials to attend the annual ASEM meetings. In September 2005, the ASEM host country, the Netherlands, refused permission for the Burmese economic minister, Soe Tha, to attend the meeting in Rotterdam. Last year, the European Union agreed to permit senior officials to attend for the purpose of genuine dialogue, which was not evident at the ASEM meeting in Helsinki in September 2006. At the meeting last week in Hamburg, the Burmese government did not engage in any serious discussions or negotiations over the human rights situation or a return to democracy.
In a joint declaration at the closure of the meeting last weekend, ASEM members criticized “the lack of tangible progress in the declared transition towards a civilian and democratic government” in Burma. Under the EU Common Position on Burma, renewed in 2006, the European Union agrees that no senior official from the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) should be permitted to visit member states unless the official is attending a multilateral forum “where a political dialogue is conducted that directly promotes democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Burma/Myanmar.”

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, lauded ASEM as a forum that has “a level of influence we can and should use to an even greater degree in international politics.”

“Steinmeier spoke about how ASEM should be used more to influence international politics precisely at the time when ASEM failed to do so with Burma,” said Adams. “The EU effectively gave up on its insistence on genuine dialogue from the Burmese government when it invited the Burmese foreign minister to attend the Hamburg meeting. It is reasonable to ask why they did this and whether the EU’s paper commitments to reform are being matched by its political decisions.”

The European Union’s softening position contrasts with the increasing frustration expressed by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the slow pace of reform in Burma after a decade of supporting Burma’s inclusion in multilateral forums. ASEAN foreign ministers issued a call for ‘tangible results’ of progress to reform in Burma after a meeting in July 2006, months after Burma avoided embarrassing diplomatic circumstances by deferring its scheduled chairpersonship of the regional grouping. Even though Indonesia abstained from voting in January on the UN Security Council resolution condemning Burma’s government over its widespread human rights violations, law makers from Indonesia and Malaysia have issued critical statements in the past months on broken promises by Burmese leaders.

Human Rights Watch said that ASEM should have put pressure on members that are the main external supporters of the SPDC: China, India and Russia. Each of these three countries has provided millions of dollars worth of military hardware to the Burmese military, thereby providing the tools of further repression. In May, Russia announced it had sold a 10 megawatt nuclear power facility to Burma. In January, both Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council resolution condemning Burma’s human rights record. India, a new ASEM member, continues to provide weapons and military assistance to the SPDC in return for natural-resource concessions.

“European and Asian countries together should be calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, demanding an end to attacks against civilians in ethnic conflict zones, and insisting on greater access for international humanitarian assistance to the country,” Adams said. “Burma is taking advantage of inconsistent policies to run circles around the international community.”