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Burma Postpones Turn as ASEAN Chairman

Foreign ministers of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, say the military government of Burma, also known as Myanmar, has agreed to forego its turn as chairman of the group next year.

An official statement read by Lao Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad said Burma decided to relinquish its turn as the ASEAN chairman because of pressing domestic issues in the coming year. "The government of Myanmar had decided that it would want to focus its attention on the ongoing national reconciliation and democratization process," he read.

The Burmese government announced the process two years ago, saying it would bring democracy after four decades of military rule.

The ASEAN ministers' statement expressed gratitude for Rangoon's decision, and said Burma could take its turn as chairman when it is ready to do so.

Earlier, U.N. special representative to Burma Razali Ismail cut short a visit to Vientiane after Burma's Foreign Minister Nyan Win refused to meet him, saying he would be too busy. Mr. Razali has been trying unsuccessfully for more than a year to return to Burma to continue efforts for reform.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been divided for months over whether Burma should assume the rotating chairmanship as scheduled next year.

Some ASEAN members privately said having Burma as chairman would undermine and embarrass the association because of the Burmese military government's authoritarian record. But others said that a long-held tradition of rotating the chairmanship alphabetically should not be violated, and only Burma could postpone its turn voluntarily.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, speaking in Bangkok on his way to Laos, praised diplomatic efforts by ASEAN members to ease the crisis over the chairmanship. But he indicated that international pressure on Burma would continue, because of Rangoon's human rights record and its detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. "We want to see political reform, and we want to see Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest," he said. "We want to see the application of international norms of human rights in Burma."

Malaysia is to assume the ASEAN chairmanship in December at a summit in Kuala Lumpur. Burma would have been next. Following the Burmese decision, the Philippines became next in line after Malaysia.

The ASEAN ministers Tuesday signed an accord establishing a development fund to support lower trade barriers between their members. And they agreed to improve cooperation in responding to natural disasters, such as the tsunami that devastated parts of the region seven months ago, causing the disappearance of 250,000 people.