Thai prime minister calls for 'more inclusive' political system in Burma

Days after the Thai military launched an offensive to evict anti-government protesters from central Bangkok, the focus turns to cleanup and recovery.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 4:59 PM

UNITED NATIONS - The military regime running Burma must allow for a "more inclusive" political system, such as allowing the participation of jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, after disputed elections are held in November, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in an interview.

Abhisit also defended his handling of an emergency decree issued in April to combat mass protests that paralyzed the streets of Bangkok. Human Rights Watch on Thursday condemned the continued use of the measure, which it said was a "draconian law" that "allows authorities to violate rights with impunity."

Abhisit said that the government would try to address Human Rights Watch's concerns but that he was "slightly disappointed" the statement did not recognize what he described as continued dangers to the government.

"I wish they would recognize that in implementing this law we are simply trying to make sure there is stability and no violence," he said. "I am confident that most ordinary people would say to you they have felt no effect of the law."

Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been sentenced repeatedly to house arrest since her party won a landslide election in 1990 that the military leadership refused to accept. Abhisit noted that Suu Kyi has been barred from participating in the coming elections, which her party, ethnic minorities, monks, students and human rights groups have denounced as a sham.

"I think, realistically, nobody expected that just having these elections would shift things," Abhisit, 46, said in an interview Thursday evening in New York, where he was attending the United Nations General Assembly. "I think it should be seen as a first step. Whether that step is big enough depends on your expectations and perspective on things."

He added: "For us, what is important is that once they go ahead, they lead to a more inclusive process which would lay the foundation for further steps and also for reconciliation with the minority groups."

Asked specifically whether Suu Kyi and her party should regain a role in public life, Abhisit said, "They [the junta] should do all they can to open up the process."

Thailand shares a long border with Burma, also known as Myanmar, and Abhisit is perceived in Asia as having a more jaundiced view of the Burmese regime than his deposed predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra. Although Abhisit took office almost two years ago, he has not visited Burma, which he attributed to scheduling conflicts.

"We should be there next month unless something comes up," he said.

Ahbisit said Burma has brought instability, ethnic refugee flows, illicit drugs and a heightened military presence along Thailand's border. He said his government was seeking "fresh mechanisms" to deal with the waves of migrant labor, which he said would help stop trafficking and other crimes. As a first step, he said, the government would seek to verify the number of foreign laborers in Thailand, which estimates put as high as 3 million but which he said a new census would probably show is much higher.

On the sensitive case of alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout - whom the United States wants extradited to face charges related to a sting operation and whom Moscow wants returned to Russia - Ahbisit said the case is working its way through the courts. Ultimately, though, he said, he would have to make the final decision.

"We don't want to upset relations with either country," he said with a smile. "We wish that maybe the two should talk to each other and resolve it without getting us involved."

Abhisit, along with the leaders of other Southeast Asian nations, met with President Obama on Friday. It was the second such meeting, and he said it demonstrated that the Obama administration wants to reengage with Southeast Asia.

"But there is now going to be more pressure that there should be deliverables," he warned. "We wish to see more concrete proposals, particularly in the area of trade and investment. That has been missing."

Abhisit said that security and the U.S. presence in the region are important but that a trade and investment deal would be the quickest way to boost the relationship between the United States and Southeast Asia. He noted that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has a free trade agreement with China, India and other countries.

Abhisit said he appreciated the political difficulty of getting such an agreement through Congress but added, "This is where the engine of growth is going to be in the future - at the global level."

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