Asia worries about instability in Myanmar

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 27 (Reuters) Asia today reacted in alarm after soldiers in Myanmar brutally cracked down on anti-government protests, with countries urging restraint and wringing their hands about instability in the region.

But they seemed reluctant to join the United States and Europe in pressing the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on military-ruled Myanmar.

''As a neighbour, China is extremely concerned about the situation in Myanmar,'' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference.

''We hope that all parties in the Myanmar issue will maintain restraint and appropriately handle the problems that have currently arisen so they do not become more complicated or expand, and don't affect Myanmar's stability and even less affect regional peace and stability.'' China, a key trade partner and one of Myanmar's few friends, has long urged stability in Myanmar, but today's comments marked the first time it has called for restraint.

As member of the Security Council, China has so far refused to support proposed UN sanctions, saying the situation in the country formerly known as Burma did not constitute a threat to international peace and security.

JAPAN SUMMONS AMBASSADOR Japan, once the biggest aid donor to Burma, today said it will summon the Myanmar ambassador to protest after security forces raided monasteries in Yangon and elsewhere following the anti-military uprising, the top government spokesman said. ''What Myanmar is doing is wrong,'' Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told reporters. But he said Tokyo would observe the situation for a while before deciding whether to impose sanctions.

Japan has withheld new aid to Myanmar since democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was detained in 2003.

The Association of Southeast Asians Nations, a 10-nation grouping that has dreams of becoming a European-style community, has long been at a loss over what to do about their most troublesome member.

The 10 ASEAN foreign ministers were to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week and diplomats say a new crisis intervention mechanism that was set up at their last meeting may be put into action.

Singapore, the current ASEAN chairman, urged the junta on Thursday to exercise restraint and seek United Nations mediation. UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, has been waiting in Singapore for Myanmar authorities to admit him into the country.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement it was ''deeply troubled'' by the violent suppression of demonstrations in Yangon and urged the generals to be mindful of the impact of its actions on the rest of ASEAN, which admitted the country in 1997 amid international criticism.

''The situation in Myanmar affects all ASEAN countries,'' the ministry said.

ASEAN has been unusually critical of the junta in some of its statements in recent years because its credibility has been dented over an inability to influence the generals through a much maligned policy of ''constructive engagement''.

While ASEAN may include an expulsion mechanism in the new charter it is preparing to unveil at a November summit in Singapore, it is reluctant to kick out the resource-rich and strategically important country and then watch it come under China's orbit, diplomats say.

Thailand put three Air Force cargo planes on standby in case it needs to evacuate Thai nationals from Myanmar and was also bracing for the possibility of refugees streaming across the border.

''If they come, we will have to give them food and shelter, just on a humanitarian basis,'' said Chumporn Polrak, governor of the northern Thai border province of Tak, told a Bangkok radio station.

Britain and the United States imposed their own sanctions on Myanmar in the 1990s, but some experts question their effectiveness, saying they tend to penalise the people more than their rulers.

''If the regime is really repressive, it kind of bolsters them,'' said Tom Green, executive director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments. ''North Korea is an example. It certainly hasn't shaken Fidel Castro, and Burma falls in that category.'' REUTERS SS RN1614

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