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Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Landmark Asean meeting in Burma

Free trade initiative follows in the wake of 1997 meltdown
By Geraldine Carroll in Bangkok

Economic ministers of the Asean group of South East Asian nations are meeting on Monday and Tuesday in Burma for talks on establishing a free trade zone which could revolutionise Asian economies.

The meeting is the most important diplomatic summit to be hosted by Burma's military government since it joined Asean in 1997.



Burmese have suffered in the region's least developed economy
The 10 ministers will try to resolve disagreements over automobile tariffs which are hampering progress towards the goal of a free trade environment in most of South East Asia by 2003.

Economic ministers from Japan, South Korea and China join the talks on Tuesday as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen ties between Asean countries and their neighbours following the Asian financial crisis.

Sanctions

It is ironic that ministers are discussing a new era for regional trade in a country with one of the region's least developed economies.

Burma suffers under sanctions imposed by the West after the military rulers in Rangoon failed to cede power to the opposition National League for Democracy party (NLD) which won a landslide victory in elections a decade ago.

The NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, says the military junta has mismanaged the country's rich natural resources.



Suu Kyi: "Repression and mismanagement"
She says hopes of rescuing Burma's dysfunctional economy are slim in the absence of political freedom and human rights.

Although its closed economy shielded Burma from the worst effects of the regional financial crisis, it has been hit by falling investment from Asia which for years provided it with most of its foreign funds.

An attempt by the World Bank and the United Nations to use the country's chronic need for aid to force the military government to embrace political reform foundered in 1998.

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See also:

28 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Burmese forced labour condemned
26 Nov 99 | Business
Trade to dominate Asian summit
20 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
Burma clamps down on web
08 Aug 98 | Burma
Special report: Burma
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