SINGAPORE – President Barack Obama on Sunday told Burma's junta to free pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during an unusual face-to-face interaction with a top leader of the ruling military.
Obama delivered the strong message during his summit with leaders of 10 Southeast Asian nations, which included Burma Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama called on Burma to free his fellow Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and end oppression of minorities.
"Obama brought that up directly with that government," Gibbs said, indicating that the president addressed Thein Sein.
For decades, Western governments have avoided direct contacts with leaders of Burma because of the regime's poor human rights record and suppression of democracy.
A joint statement issued after the summit — the first ever between a U.S. president and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — devoted a paragraph on Burma, a major irritant in relations between the two sides.
But the statement did not call for the release of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, who has spent 14 of the last 20 years under detention by the military regime. It only urged Burma to ensure that the elections it intends to hold in 2010 are "conducted in a free, fair, inclusive and transparent manner."
However, a direct appeal from Obama carries more weight as he is the most powerful leader to have conveyed the message directly to a top Burma official.
Thein Sein did not address leaders' concerns about Suu Kyi, said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. "We expected a bit more but it was not forthcoming. We hope (democracy) ... in Burma will become a reality sooner than later," he told reporters.
He said a reference to Suu Kyi was not included in the statement because there was no consensus.
White House aides said ASEAN was unlikely to include an explicitly critical statement on one of its members, since it would amount to Burma criticizing itself. That's why Obama raised the issue directly in his remarks to the group, said the aides.
Obama, in a broad policy speech in Tokyo on Saturday, also made a point of mentioning Suu Kyi by name.
Before the summit, the 11 leaders gathered for a photo shoot for a few minutes, but Obama and Thein Sein stayed far from each other and made no contact of any sort.
Burma's government has said the 2010 elections are another step toward democracy, but has not clarified whether Suu Kyi will be allowed to participate. The junta refused to honor the result of the last elections in 1990 when Suu Kyi's party won by a landslide.
Although the United States recently eased its policy toward Burma by initiating talks with the generals, it has made clear economic sanctions won't be lifted unless Suu Kyi is released.
Earlier this month, two senior U.S. diplomats went to Burma for talks, and also had a private meeting with Suu Kyi. It was the highest-level U.S. visit to Burma in 14 years.
Sunday's U.S.-ASEAN summit — held just after the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum — is the outcome of the new thinking in Washington that ignoring Burma will not yield any results, and relations with Southeast Asia should not be held hostage by the junta.