By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 16, 2006
JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 15 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sharply criticized Burma's military government Wednesday for denying the aspirations of its people. She described it as an oppressive holdout in a region moving increasingly toward democracy.
Speaking during the second day of a visit to Indonesia, Rice condemned Burma's rulers for bankrupting their once vibrant economy and shuttering universities that had previously attracted top scholars.
Her tough remarks, which echoed earlier administration criticisms, capped an address surveying the state of U.S. relations with countries across Southeast Asia.
"A country that was once the jewel of Southeast Asia is now out of step with the entire modern experience of the region," Rice told an audience of scholars, politicians, businessmen and students at the Indonesia Council on World Affairs. Citing Burma's decision late last year to relocate its capital to a remote, interior site, she said, "The Burmese regime is now literally retreating into the depths of the country, closing its people off from the world and robbing them of their future."
The U.S. government has progressively imposed economic sanctions on Burma over the last decade in hopes of pushing its ruling generals toward political change and winning the release of the detained democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma's military rulers have maintained tight control since they rejected the results of a 1990 election won in a landslide by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.
With few formal contacts remaining between Burma and the United States, U.S. officials have been looking to the leaders of Burma's neighbors to press the cause of political change.
"Democracy still faces determined opponents, and where freedom is under attack it must be defended," Rice said, noting that Indonesians had successfully established a democratic system in recent years after the country's longtime dictator, Suharto, was ousted in 1998 during mass protests.
Two weeks ago, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono traveled to Burma and called on its rulers to keep the rest of Southeast Asia informed about internal political changes. He also urged them to allow in monitors from countries in the region.
While these steps were modest, they reflect a new willingness by Burma's neighbor countries to intervene in its domestic affairs. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had long rejected what they called meddling in one another's internal matters.
Late last year, ASEAN agreed to dispatch Malaysia's foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, on a mission to Burma to assess whether the government intended to proceed with democratic reforms as it had promised. But Burma has repeatedly rebuffed Albar's request to visit.
Rice praised ASEAN for its recent efforts to move Burma toward democracy. She also noted that the U.N. Security Council was reviewing the situation there.
"So long as the proud people of this great nation remain oppressed, there can be no business as usual in Southeast Asia," Rice said.
During her remarks, Rice emphasized the U.S. desire to cooperate with ASEAN in confronting a variety of security challenges. Several Southeast Asian governments, including U.S. allies, have criticized the Bush administration for its apparent reluctance to engage with the organization. They have warned that the U.S. approach is ceding influence to China.
Rice outlined three areas of concern, including the hazard posed by pirates and other criminals to crucial shipping lanes in the Malacca Strait, a narrow strip of water between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. She also cited the danger of epidemic illnesses, most recently bird flu, and the continuing threat of terrorism carried out by radical groups such as the Jemaah Islamiah underground in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.
On the economic front, Rice said the United States would continue to promote free trade in the region.