Phnom Penh (CNSNews.com) - Bowing to strong diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and European Union, Burma's military rulers have announced they will forgo the chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Foreign Minister U. Nyan Win told his ASEAN counterparts at a meeting in Laos that his country decided to relinquish its turn to hold the rotating chair in order to pay "full attention to its national reconciliation and democratization process" a process that was "entering a critical phase in 2006."
The slot earmarked for Burma, also known as Myanmar, will move to the next ASEAN member according to the alphabet, the Philippines, which will assume the chair late next year.
The U.S. and E.U. had warned that they would probably boycott ASEAN meetings should Burma take the chair. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice missed this week's meeting, sending her deputy instead, in what diplomats saw as a precursor to a full boycott.
Earlier this week, British foreign office trade minister Ian Pearson said dealing with the 10-nation grouping would be problematic for the West if Burma presided. The country chairing ASEAN also hosts the meetings over that period.
"It would be very difficult, not just for the UK but for other countries, to deal with ASEAN if Burma was to hold the chair under the current circumstances," he told reporters.
The U.S. and E.U. have imposed sanctions on the military junta because of its poor human rights record, faltering reform effort and the continuing detention of thousands of political prisoners, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The latest development comes as a relief for other ASEAN governments, which were struggling to find a way to ensure support for Burma did not come at the price of damage to the bloc.
Some expressed concern that a crucial security dialogue known as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) would also be compromised by any Western boycott. The forum, whose annual meeting immediately follows the current ASEAN meeting in Laos, groups the South-East Asian nations with 14 other governments with interests in the region, including the U.S., Russia, China and Australia.
Australian Foreign Minister Alex Downer welcomed the move: "I think it is better under these circumstances that Myanmar focus on political and constitutional reform," he told reporters during a visit to Thailand.
George Yeo, Singapore's foreign minister, also praised Burma's decision, saying the move "removes a thorny issue" from the table. "Their domestic politics and our interests as a region have been intertwined. It is good that these will be decoupled," he said.
In a bid to soften the blow, Laotian foreign minister Somsavat Lengsavat said Burma hoped to postpone its chairmanship for another occasion. "We agree that once Myanmar is ready to take its turn as the ASEAN chair it can do so," he said.
Within hours of the announcement, the E.U. announced that the bloc's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, will attend the ARF later this week.
Solana said the ARF offered a unique occasion for intensive dialogue on a wide range of international and Asian security issues.
ASEAN comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei.
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