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ASEAN Foreign Ministers Postpone Decision on Burma's Chairmanship


Senior diplomats from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have deferred a decision on whether Burma should take up the chairmanship of the group in 2006. The issue is becoming a heated one for the regional group.

The ASEAN officials said their annual retreat, held in the Philippines during the past few days, was not the place to decide whether Burma should take over as chairman of the group in 2006.

Instead, they announced a decision will be made in July at a more formal gathering in Laos.

The United States and the European Union have indicated they would boycott ASEAN gatherings if Burma is at the helm, because of Rangoon's poor human-rights record.

Thailand's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, says the foreign ministers had time to make a decision. "They (ministers) may want to have further discussions later on because there is still some time left before Myanmar [Burma] takes up the chairmanship of ASEAN."

Burma's foreign minister said at the retreat that it is his government's "responsibility" to take on the rotating chairmanship, and rejected calls by the international community to stand aside.

Politicians in some ASEAN nations, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, have called for Burma to either proceed on political reform or step aside in 2006.

Many of these critics say Rangoon must release opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, allow opposition parties to participate in drafting of a new constitution, and allow a U.N. envoy access to Burma to gauge the progress of reforms.

Although Burma unveiled a reform plan two years ago, analysts and human-rights groups say there has been little significant progress.

Former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino warns against any change in rotation of the chair. "I would not want to pre-empt their (the foreign ministers') decision," he said. "But they must have a pretty good reason if they have to disrupt the rotation - and I do not think that anybody has actually proposed that."

Mr. Severino, now with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says the option of Burma stepping aside was "dangerous", although he acknowledged that ASEAN wants Rangoon to begin political reforms.

Thailand's Mr. Sihasak plays down the dispute within ASEAN. "I do not think there is a division among ASEAN with regard to the situation that confronts us with regard to the chairmanship of ASEAN by Myanmar. I think much of what has been reported by the press has been overplayed," he said.

In 1997, when Burma joined ASEAN, the group's members backed the move despite concerns about its human-rights performance, saying constructive engagement would edge Rangoon toward political change.