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Burma Postpones ASEAN Visit Meant to Assess its Progress Toward Democracy

Burma's military government has postponed a planned visit by an envoy from the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, to assess the country's progress in instituting democratic reforms. Burma says the postponement is due to the government's preoccupation with a move to a new capital.

A delegation from the Association of South East Asian Nations - ASEAN - of which Burma is a member, was scheduled to travel to Rangoon this month as part of the association's efforts to prod the military government towards democracatic reform.

But late Friday, Burma's Foreign Minister, U Nyan Win, told reporters in Rangoon the visit was being postponed. He said the government was too busy moving to a new administrative capital in Pyinmana, in a remote area of Central Burma.

Mr. Nyan Win said he did not know when the ASEAN visit could be rescheduled.

The Burmese originally agreed to the visit during the ASEAN summit last month. The government faced criticism at that time from individual ASEAN legislators over the lack of democracy, and the continued detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The ASEAN delegation was to be led by Malaysia's foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar. Malaysia currently holds the chairmanship of ASEAN.

The news that the visit has been postponed triggered an angry response from a regional group of members of parliament who have been pressing loudly for democratic reform in Rangoon.

Zaid Ibrahim, chairman of the ASEAN Inter-parliamentary Caucus on Burma, says the postponement should be seen as a mark of disrespect to ASEAN.

"It's a very serious situation - a slap on ASEAN'S credibility," said Zaid Ibrahim. "I think it's about time that ASEAN consider if Burma shows no interest in this subject of reform and democracy, I believe that Burma should be excluded, expelled from ASEAN."

Burma was admitted to ASEAN in 1997 with the support of countries including Malaysia, which argued that other ASEAN member states would be able to apply subtle pressure on the government to reform.

In 2003, the government announced a "road map" to democracy, which included the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of general elections. But so far, no date has been set for elections, and the constitutional convention is still in the process of drafting a document.

Analysts say ASEAN is increasingly frustrated with the military's government's slow pace on reform. Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirajuda, last week called on Burma to show what he termed "measured democratic progress" within the timeframe of the road map.