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Obama urges Myanmar to free democracy leader Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic face of democracy in Myanmar, was placed under house arrest in 1989.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic face of democracy in Myanmar, was placed under house arrest in 1989.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President calls for "unconditional release of all political prisoners" in nation
  • He also urges government to talk with minority groups, democratic opposition
  • U.S. officials say Obama isn't talking just with Myanmar leader at ASEAN summit
  • Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years

Singapore (CNN) -- President Obama on Sunday called for the release of Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

"There are clear steps that must be taken: the unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi; an end to conflicts with minority groups; and a genuine dialogue between the government, the democratic opposition and minority groups," according to Obama, who said the regime should work to ensure its people's needs are met.

He spoke during a meeting with ASEAN-10 leaders that included the prime minister of Myanmar. Obama is the first U.S. president to take part in a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations economic alliance. The formal meeting was held Sunday.

That 10-nation alliance includes Myanmar, which the United States and other nations have accused of human rights abuses.

U.S. officials were careful to avoid any perception that Obama's presence at the ASEAN meeting would amount to a bilateral discussion with the prime minister of Myanmar.

After years of refusing direct talks with Myanmar, also known as Burma, the United States has indicated a possible re-engagement with the military regime it considers repressive for cracking down on political opposition, including the National League for Democracy.

The league is led by Suu Kyi, a detained Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The statement we're trying to make here is that we're not going to let the Burmese tail wag the ASEAN dog.
--Jeffrey Bader, National Security Council's senior director for East Asian affairs
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"The statement we're trying to make here is that we're not going to let the Burmese tail wag the ASEAN dog," said Jeffrey Bader, the National Security Council's senior director for East Asian affairs. "We're going to meet with all 10, and we're not going to punish the other nine simply because Burma is in the room, but this is not a bilateral."

Obama reiterated his stance in a speech Saturday in Tokyo, Japan.

"Despite years of good intentions, neither sanctions by the United States nor engagement by others succeeded in improving the lives of the Burmese people," he said.

"So we are now communicating directly with the leadership to make it clear that existing sanctions will remain until there are concrete steps toward democratic reform."

Suu Kyi, the iconic face of democracy in Myanmar, was placed under house arrest in 1989.

The next year, the National League for Democracy won more than 80 percent of the legislative seats in the first free elections in the country in nearly 30 years.

But Myanmar's military junta disqualified Suu Kyi from serving because of her house arrest and annulled the election results.

Her supporters say Suu Kyi's latest arrest -- ostensibly over an American visiting her home without government permission -- is meant to keep her confined so she cannot participate in the general elections that the junta has scheduled for next year.

She has been under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years, and is rarely allowed visitors, except for her doctor.

 
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