Vientianne - Asean has been saved from the embarrassment of having an internationally-despised country as its chairman next year after Myanmar agreed to forgo its turn to occupy the chair from July next year. Myanmar's decision, announced at the Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in the Laotian capital on July 27, meant that a possible confrontation with Western nations had been averted.
Asean said in a statement that military-ruled Myanmar had decided to relinquish its turn to assume the chairmanship next year because its leaders wanted to focus "its full attention" on its ongoing national reconciliation and democratisation process.
"The government of Myanmar has shown its commitment to the well-being of Asean," the statement noted. It also promised that once "Myanmar is ready to take its turn to be the Asean chair, it can do so".
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said international pressure might have played a part in Myamar's decision to give up the chair. The United States and the European Union, which have been very critical of Myanmar’s human rights record, had threatened to distance themselves from Asean if Yangon was in the chair.
However, Mr Yeo added that "it was a call by Myanmar for their own reason to opt out for the time being".
Following the alphabetic rotation of chairmanship, the Philippines will take over the chair next year.
While many quarters, such as the European Union, welcomed the development, others said the issue of Myanmar should not end here for Asean.
Mr Kraisak Choonhaven, chairman of the Thai Senate Committee for Foreign Affairs, said Asean should now push towards a definite time-frame for democratisation. If it could not deliver, Asean ought to defer Myanmar's membership, he added.
''The decision announced shows delicate diplomacy is working in Asean. However, this does not mean that Burma can now do nothing or not shoulder political reform. Rather, they should make the commitment and deliver it,'' he said.
In an editorial, The Nation said Asean and its individual governments must not rest on their laurels and think that Asean has polished its image with a minimum of fuss.
"Together, they must continue to heap pressure on Burma to open up the country and release Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the political prisoners being held. The grouping's future relevance depends very much on how it can influence the situation in Burma for the better," the Thai daily added.
* Myanmar gives up Asean chair (The Straits Times, July 27)
* Rangoon gives up Asean chair (Bangkok Post, July 27)
* Keep the pressure up on Burma (The Nation, July 27)