Myanmar needs democracy for ASEAN charter--Manila

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SINGAPORE/MANILA, Nov 19 (Reuters) Myanmar should commit to democracy and release its opposition leader if it signs the new ASEAN Charter, or risk the Philippines not ratifying it, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said today.

Leaders from the Association of South East Asian Nations are set to sign a landmark charter tomorrow that calls for promotion of democracy and human rights, even as the 10-member group grapples with Western calls for sanctions on Myanmar.

''The expectation of the Philippines is that if Myanmar signs the charter, it is committed to returning to the path of democracy and (to) release Aung San Suu Kyi,'' said Arroyo in a press statement released in Singapore and Manila. ''Until the Philippine Congress sees that happen, it would have extreme difficulty in ratifying the ASEAN charter,'' she said.

It was unclear if this would mean the charter not taking effect.

The document, which would give ASEAN a legal identity, also calls for economic integration by 2015.

Myanmar's detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was taken today from her villa to a state guesthouse where she is believed to have met Aung Kyi, the ruling junta's appointed go-between.

It would be their third meeting since Aung Kyi's appointment amid world outrage at the September crackdown, in which the junta says 15 were killed. Western diplomats put the toll higher.

The United States also criticised ASEAN's handling of Myanmar's junta today, saying it made a US-ASEAN free trade agreement impossible at present. ASEAN members defended their policy of non-interference in each others' domestic affairs.

Arroyo herself has come under fire for her human rights record in the Philippines over the killing of left-wing activists, while the leaders of fellow ASEAN members Laos and Vietnam told Reuters this week they had no plans for democracy.

Some Myanmar observers said the Aung Kyi meeting might have been timed to deflect criticism at the annual ASEAN get-together, where Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein briefed his counterparts on events in his country for the first time since the crackdown.

Western governments have dismissed the junta's ''roadmap to democracy'' as a blueprint for the army legitimising its grip on power after 45 years of unbroken military rule.

REUTERS RSA RN2108

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