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SE Asian ministers urge Myanmar to hold free election; want to help bring NKorea back to talks

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Southeast Asian foreign ministers gave Myanmar's military-run government an "earful" while demanding that it hold free and fair elections — a rare stand by the cautious group often accused of overlooking rights abuses in member nations.

Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations ended their annual meeting Tuesday in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, where they tackled a diverse agenda — from setting up a European-style economic community by 2015 to bolstering ties with the West and regional powers China, Japan and India.

But at a dinner on the eve of the conference, Myanmar took center stage as diplomats vented their concerns about planned elections, which the junta has said will be held this year, without giving a date.

Many ministers told Myanmar's that the junta should hold "free, fair and inclusive" elections. Such straight talk is unusual given ASEAN members' bedrock policy of not interfering in one another's domestic affairs.

"Myanmar, I think, got an earful last night that ASEAN is very much concerned," ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters on the sidelines of Tuesday's meetings. The ministers also offered to send observers to the elections.

Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win, in keeping with his government's typical secrecy, did not give a date for the vote. "The responsibility is for the ... elections commissioner, not the foreign minister," he said.

Some ministers expressed hope for some change within the regime, while continuing to press for the release of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 65, who has spent 15 birthdays in detention over the past 20 years, mostly under house arrest. She is the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate.

"Once the generals take off their uniforms and they've got to win votes and kiss babies and attend to local needs, the behavior will change and the economy will gradually open up," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo told reporters on the meeting's sidelines. "We suggested quite strongly to our Myanmar colleagues that they consider having ASEAN observers at the elections."

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters that Nyan Win has agreed to inform the ASEAN members whether their offer to help is approved by the government.

In a joint statement after their meeting on Tuesday, the ASEAN ministers devoted one of 73 paragraphs to repeat their call for free elections in Myanmar. It did not mention demands to release Suu Kyi and other prisoners, reflecting efforts to avoid embarrassing Myanmar officially.

Critics have dismissed the election — the first in two decades — as a sham designed to cement nearly 50 years of military rule in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Suu Kyi is not allowed to participate in the election, and her party is boycotting the vote and has been disbanded.

"The way that the military regime is treating political prisoners led by Aung San Suu Kyi even makes the ASEAN countries embarrassed," said Trevor Wilson, a Myanmar expert at the Australian National University in Canberra. "And they're pretty good at treating political prisoners badly themselves."

On Monday, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya also raised concerns about allegations that Myanmar may be interested in developing a nuclear weapons program with help from North Korea. Myanmar has denied those claims.

The ministers also discussed North Korea's nuclear program. The Philippines has proposed that a group be formed to persuade the North to return to stalled talks aimed pressuring the regime into giving up its nukes, according to a diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press.

Tensions between the Koreas are high following the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors in the sinking of a warship blamed on Pyongyang earlier this year. The North has denied involvement.

"We deplored the incident of the Cheonan ship sinking," the ministers said in their statement, referring to the South Korean ship. "We urged all parties concerned to exercise the utmost restraint."

The North's top diplomat is expected to arrive in Hanoi on Wednesday and attend an ASEAN security forum later in the week with all members of the disarmament talks, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The last talks, which involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, were held in Beijing in 2008.

ASEAN, founded in 1967, includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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Associated Press writers Tran Van Minh and Margie Mason contributed to this report.