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Burma Bids to Head ASEAN in 2014

Myanmar's President Thein Sein, left, is greeted by his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono prior to their meeting at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 5, 2011

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is considering giving military-led Burma the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, despite grave concerns about human rights abuses and lack of real democratic development.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, issued Friday a strong objection to Burma's request to chair ASEAN in 2014.

"Burma's human rights record is an extremely sorry one. They still have over 2,000 political prisoners in jail, forced labor being used all over the country, people raising the issue of a possible UN commission of inquiry on Burma," he said. "For ASEAN to have Burma chair it with that kind of record would basically create a reputational risk to ASEAN that would be far too great. That would make ASEAN the laughing stock of inter government organizations."

There are longstanding differences in the level of economic growth, democratic development and social progress within the 10 member states of ASEAN, but Burma's human rights record has been a constant source of tension and embarrassment for the organization.

Burmese President Thein Sein arrived in Indonesia to attend the two-day ASEAN summit that begins on Saturday. He met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Thursday in what is his first trip abroad as president since he was sworn in on March 30.

President Sein was prime minister under the now-disbanded military junta. In November of 2010 he won the first election held in Burma in 20 years, but Western governments criticized the process as restrictive and fraudulent. While opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest shortly after the election, the United States and Europe and a number of other countries continue to impose arms embargoes and economic sanctions on Burma.

Southeast Asia political analyst Carl Thayer with the University of New South Wales in Australia says Burma's request put's ASEAN in an uncomfortable position. He says ASEAN pressured Burma to relinquish the chairmanship before in 2005 but promised future support if it made democratic progress.

"Since then they've run elections that ASEAN has endorsed. And now Myanmar, Burma has made the request to, you know, said it is ready to resume. So ASEAN is now stuck because as it moves towards this community creation, all of a sudden the role of Myanmar in it will become divisive in terms of ASEAN's external relations," Thayer stated.

He says if Burma were to head ASEAN, the U.S. and the EU would likely refuse to participate in any the organization meetings and it would severely impede progress in making ASEAN an integrated economic community.