South-east Asian governments on Monday abandoned attempts to censure Burma publicly for its human rights abuses, with officials admitting in private that they could not take effective action against Burma's military regime without the support of China.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations ended their annual summit in Laos with a declaration that made no reference to Burma, despite earlier promises that they would ask the junta “hard questions” about its stalled plans for democratisation.

Asean's silence on the continuing house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Nobel-prize winning opposition leader, marks a climbdown from the stand they took a year and a half ago, when regional governments issued a joint call for her freedom.

But an official from Malaysia - the country that pushed hardest for Rangoon's admission into Asean in 1997 - claimed that south-east Asian governments had little leverage to press the recalcitrant Burmese junta, which receives strong financial and political backing from China's Communist government.

Burma supplies China's fast-growing economy with timber, minerals and other natural resources, and has allowed Beijing to establish naval facilities in Burmese territory on the Andaman Sea, and in return receives diplomatic and financial support.

“It's very difficult,” the Malaysian official said. “The Chinese have lots of influence, and now the Indians are in there trying to curry favor as well. Perhaps only China can solve this problem.”

Burma's political repression, economic stagnation, human rights abuses, and continued detention of the internationally admired Ms Suu Kyi are an increasing embarrassment for Asean, especially with Rangoon poised to lead the regional group in mid-2006.

Last year, Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister, warned that Burma could potentially be expelled from the group, a threat that deeply upset the junta. But in this year's summit, Asean members avoided publicly criticising the regime.

However, an official from the Philippines said regional leaders had not given up their quest to push for change in Rangoon and had discussed the issue informally. “We will deal with this our way - the Asian way,” the official said.

Officials said the next six months would see a flurry of negotiations and consultation on how to nudge the regime forward. Sihasak Phuanketgaeow, a Thai foreign ministry spokesman, said Burma's new prime minister, Soe Win, was “sensitive to the perceptions of the international community”.

In response to pressure for change, General Khin Nyunt, Burma's then premier, last year announced a seven-point “political roadmap”, which he said would begin with a constitution-writing convention and culminate in national elections.

But hopes that the roadmap might signal a real reform process were dashed when the junta refused to free Ms Suu Kyi before the constitutional talks began. Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which won a landslide election victory in 1990 but was then barred from taking power, boycotted the constitutional talks when the military refused to assure open discussion.

Asean members got another nasty surprise last month, when Gen Khin Nyunt, the former head of military intelligence, was sacked and arrested in a palace coup by other members of the junta's ruling troika. Gen Soe Win, Burma's new prime minister, has been accused by the US of orchestrating a brutal May 2003 attack on Ms Suu Kyi and supporters as they travelled by road outside Rangoon.

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