EU and ASEAN call on Myanmar to free detainees

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SINGAPORE, Nov 22 (Reuters) The European Union and Southeast Asian leaders called today for enhanced economic cooperation and the release of political detainees in military-ruled Myanmar, but set no timetables.

A free trade agreement between the EU and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was expected to be held up by issues ranging from the release of detained opposition eader Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar to bank secrecy laws.

''We welcome the decision of the government of Myanmar to step up its engagement with the UN and to enter into a dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, recalling that such a dialogue should be conducted with all concerned parties and ethnic groups,'' said the joint declaration of the ASEAN-EU Summit, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.

The joint declaration also said the two groupings would be mindful of the different levels of development and capacity in moving towards a free trade deal.

Talks over a free trade agreement kicked off in May but have made little progress since then.

While EU officials and diplomats welcomed a new ASEAN charter -- which enshrines principles of democracy and human rights, economic integration and environmental protection -- they criticised the organisation's handling of military-ruled Myanmar.

Speaking to Reuters in an interview on the eve of the talks, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, advocated a ''carrot and stick'' approach to bring about democratic reforms.

Ferrero-Waldner said the EU aimed to maintain a regional view in free trade talks with ASEAN countries and that disagreement over how to best handle Myanmar should not get in the way of the negotiations.

But the EU this week adopted sanctions against 1,207 firms in Myanmar and expanded visa bans and asset freezes on the country's military rulers in response to their bloody crackdown on the biggest pro-democracy protests in nearly 20 years in September.

The United States expanded its sanctions against Myanmar's rulers in October and the US Senate has voted to urge ASEAN to suspend Myanmar until the regime shows respect for human rights.

ASEAN leaders say that sanctions reduce the chances of leading the military regime on a democratic path.

Acknowledging the potentially harmful effects of sanctions on the broader population, Ferrero-Waldner said that once the EU was satisfied with the progress of reforms in Myanmar, it could do more to help fight poverty in the Southeast Asian country.

ASEAN is the EU's fifth-biggest trading partner.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, European trade chief Peter Mandelson and Ferrero-Waldner met ASEAN ministers for talks on Thursday.

Earlier this week, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab said that a free trade deal between the US and ASEAN is unlikely because of ''the political situation in the region''.

Diplomats say the new ASEAN charter, which gives the group a legal identity, means that the current option of excluding Myanmar from trade deals will end.

The charter, signed on Tuesday, needs to be ratified by the 10 ASEAN member states within 12 months for it to take effect.

But President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines has said that the Philippine Congress might not ratify the charter unless Myanmar releases detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

REUTERS SZ RK1138

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