Burma's military government announced over the past two weeks that it was releasing more than 9,000 inmates from its prisons. Why would one of the world's most reclusive and repressive regimes show such a forgiving side? The answer probably lay not in Rangoon but in Vientiane, Laos, host of this week's 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. The conclave is the international debut of Burma's new Prime Minister, General Soe Win. A reputed hard-liner, Soe Win has been accused by the U.S. State Department of direct involvement in a mob attack on Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi last year, in which dozens of her followers were killed. And some members of the regional bloc are increasingly apprehensive about Burma's turn to chair ASEAN in 2006. (The leadership rotates among its members.) "ASEAN is heading toward a very embarrassing situation," says Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of Thailand's Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.
This year's summit was preceded by some rare fireworks. The group has a decades-old policy of "nonintervention" in each other's affairs. Last week, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra threatened to walk out of the meetings if anyone tried to discuss his country's problem with Muslim insurgents in Thailand's south. "If there is any attempt to raise the issue," he told reporters, "I will fly straight home." Burma's Soe Win may have been hoping that the prisoner release would prevent awkward discussions on the fate of Suu Kyi and her supporters. According to opposition groups, only a few dozen of the country's approximately 1,300 political prisoners were set free. (The rest were criminals.) Before flying to Vientiane, Soe Win gave no clue as to whether Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 18 months so far, would be allowed her freedom. In Burma, some prisoners are more fortunate than others.