Myanmar's authorities need to keep calm and avoid violence in the face of protests against power outages and should view them as a natural stage in a transition from military rule to democracy, the head of the ASEAN grouping said on May 24.
Demonstrations have taken place in several towns in Myanmar this week, including the commercial capital, Yangon, as citizens test the limit of democratic changes, leaving the authorities struggling to respond.
After tolerating the protests for days, police broke up a crowd in the town of Pyi and several members of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party were detained for questioning in the city of Mandalay.
Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said it was important for Myanmar to stay the course and resist any temptation to suppress dissent.
"If a country or society aspires to open to democracy, it has to be prepared to deal with popular participation, pressure, demand, conflicts, tension, in some cases violence," Surin, a former foreign minister of Thailand, told Reuters in an interview.
"But a country or a government will need to deal with it."
Myanmar's military, which ruled for nearly 50 years following a 1962 coup, used force to crush outbreaks of protests over the decades.
ASEAN was for years supportive of Myanmar, opting for a policy of constructive engagement when the United States and other Western powers were imposing sanctions for its poor human rights record.
Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997 despite the doubts of the regional group's Western partners and the objections of supporters of Myanmar's beleaguered pro-democracy movement.
Myanmar's quasi-civilian government took over a year ago and launched broad economic and political reforms.
Surin said ASEAN was ready to help Myanmar cope with pressures in case of shortages of necessities such as water, food, or transportation, drawing on many members' experiences.
"What we would like to see is (that) there won't be any disruptions, there won't be any violence in managing popular demands."
This week's marches pose a test for reformist President Thein Sein -- himself a former junta general -- who has freed hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed censorship, started peace talks with ethnic rebels and held by-elections that put Suu Kyi in parliament.
But the reforms are likely to raise expectations that both the government and the opposition might struggle to meet.
Supplying electricity to the 60-million population is just one of the challenges facing one of the poorest members of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc.
Asked about the impact of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact negotiated by nine nations, including four ASEAN members, Surin said it would not hinder ASEAN's own economic integration.
ASEAN, ranging from impoverished Laos to resource-rich Indonesia to developed Singapore, is planning a union which allows for a free flow of goods, capital, services and labor by 2015. But many economists doubt the target is realistic.
Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei are also in the talks on the U.S.-led pact and Surin said other ASEAN members may consider joining if membership proves beneficial for the four.
"If they benefit ... it will be an incentive and encouragement for the rest to look into it. Whatever they agree will not undermine or undercut the ASEAN's own economic integration."
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