Asean Summit United On North Korean Rocket, Lifting Myanmar Sanctions

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By Daniel Tovrov | April 4, 2012 12:00 AM EST

The historic elections in Myanmar and the planned North Korean missile launch dominated the agenda at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that began Tuesday.

Leaders of the regional bloc, known as Asean, hailed the special elections in Myanmar as transparent, free and an "opportunity ... to make the reform process even more irreversible," said Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

The success of the vote prompted Asean to recommend removal of sanctions against Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

“The lifting of sanctions would contribute positively to the democratic process and especially economic development of Myanmar,” said Cambodia's secretary of state, Kao Kim Hourn, who led Tuesday's meeting in Phnom Penh.

The United States and Myanmar's former colonial master, Britain, have long maintained sanctions against the country's repressive military regime. Both Western powers have said that free elections and the release of political prisoners would have to precede any removal of sanctions.

The U.S. government still has economic restrictions in place against the civilian government of President Thein Sein a way to test its commitment to reform. Critics, however, suggest that the sanctions are hurting progress toward democracy because they slow development of Myanmar's lower and middle classes. As noted by Bloomberg News, easing sanctions could bring Myanmar significant investment from companies including General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) and U.K.-based banking groupn Standard Chartered PLC (LON: STAN).

“It’s too early to know what recent progress means and whether it will be sustained,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently about the prospect of lifting the sanctions on Myanmar . “There are no guarantees about what lies ahead for the people of Burma, but after a day responding to a brutal dictator in Syria who would rather destroy his own country than let it move toward freedom, it is heartening to be reminded that even the most repressive regimes can reform and even the most closed societies can open.”

Development could benefit all Asean nations, which declared Tuesday that "strengthening the mechanisms for ensuring financial stability in the region" was the summit's top priority, especially since the bloc wants to create a European Union-style economic zone by 2015.

Security also was a pressing issue at the regional leaders' meeting, specifically the rocket launch North Korea has said it plans for mid-April. The isolated communist nation said it will be sending a research satellite into orbit, but the United States, Japan, South Korea and other governments regard the launch as a poorly disguised military missile test.

All 10 Asean member states "spoke with one voice" against North Korea's plans, according to Malaysia's Sun Daily.

"I think the countries that spoke on the topic ... were all of the opinion that we should be discouraging [North Korea] from undertaking that launch," Philippine foreign minister Albert del Rosario said.

In a separate decision, the Philippines said Tuesday that it will halt air and sea traffic over the area where the North Korean rocket is expected to splash down. Between April 12 and 16, commercial and private planes and all ships and fishing boats will be barred from passing through a patch of the Philippine Sea 140 nautical miles east of Polilio Island, according to the Manila-based Inquirer newspaper.

Japan announced that it would shoot down the rocket if it flew over Japanese territory.

Separately, a report Tuesday in U.K. newspaper the Telegraph warned that North Korea is developing a long-range missile capable of hitting the United States. A South Korean team using reconnaissance satellites spied a 130-foot long missile in Pyongyang, the capital of the North Korea, with rocket boosters that could send a warhead 6,200 miles.

The new missile could be "a life-size mock-up" that will be displayed during parades celebrating the centenary of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung's birth, South Korean officials told the Chosun Ilbo. That newspaper also reported that the North has 10,000 people working on rocket development and could be building "suicide" attack drones equipped with small bombs.

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