Bush urges democracy in Asia

He has proposed an Asian democratic forum while also inviting Southeast Asian leaders to a summit in Texas.

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His invite was also directed to an official from Burma’s military regime, which he criticised for suppression of people’s democratic rights.

’Stronger ties with Asia’

Today Mr Bush met with leaders of countries that are members of both the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Sydney.

He said democracy promotion, the war on terrorism, trade expansion, avian flu, and climate change would be on the agenda.

"I also am pleased to announce that we'll be naming an ambassador to ASEAN, so that we can make sure that the ties we've established over the past years remain firmly entrenched," said the US president.

White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said all ASEAN heads of state had been invited, except Burma, whose "level of participation is to be determined".

The US president unveiled the meeting as he held talks here with leaders of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. ASEAN's other members are Cambodia, Laos, and Burma.

"ASEAN represents our fourth largest trading partner. In other words, this is a group of friends that represent more than just social acquaintances, you represent commerce and trade and prosperity," he said.

Burma in spotlight

Bush's announcement came hours after he called on APEC leaders to pile pressure on the military rulers of Burma to free pro-democracy activists including Aung San Suu Kyi.

"We must press the regime in Burma to stop arresting and harassing and assaulting pro-democracy activists for organising or participating in peaceful demonstrations," he said in the keynote speech of his visit to Sydney.

"The Burmese regime must release these activists immediately. It must stop its intimidation of these citizens who are promoting democracy and human rights. It must release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi."

Burma's military rulers have held the Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy icon under house arrest for 11 of the past 17 years.

His comments followed US State Department criticism of a Burma convention that drew up guidelines for a new constitution, and a rare political foray by First Lady Laura Bush who asked for UN condemnation of the crackdown.

"It's inexcusable that people who march for freedom are then treated (this way) by a repressive state. And those of us who live in the comfort of a free society need to speak out about these kinds of human rights abuses,” he said.

Bush had already last week criticised the junta's crackdown in a statement but his comments in Sydney were more direct and used harsher language.

Aung San Suu Kyi's party won elections in 1990 but the military never recognised the result, and instead opened the National Convention in 1993 to draft a new constitution.

According to Amnesty International more than 150 people have been detained in Burma since August 19, when activists began rare protests against a staggering hike in fuel prices that left some people unable to afford even a bus fare.

The military regime has long dealt harshly with the slightest show of dissent during 45 years in power, but the latest protests have spread across the country, defying the threat of arrests and beatings.