The Malaysian government is poised this week to pass a motion in parliament calling for Burma to be passed over for its chairmanship of the Association of South-East Asian Nations.
Momentum is growing within Asean to deprive Burma of its scheduled chairmanship of the organisation next year because of its failure to introduce democratic reforms.
There is growing concern among Asean members that failure to deal with Burma could hurt the regional grouping's relations with the US and the EU, which have threatened to boycott Asean meetings held in Burma when it assumes the rotating chairmanship. Burma defended itself on Sunday in the face of the Malaysia-led tougher line.
Senior General Than Shwe, Burma's leader, said in an address to the army: “Our political reforms have gained acceptance not only among our neighbours and nations within the region but also among all positive-thinking countries.”
Foreign ministers from Asean members will have a meeting about Burma next month in the Philippines.
George Yeo, the Singapore foreign minister, said: “Some hard messages may very well have to put across because what happens in [Burma] will affect Asean as a whole.” But the issue could also split Asean because of its traditional policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states.
Thailand has said it will not join the campaign to press Burma because it still hopes the Rangoon government will improve its human rights record before it takes over the Asean chairmanship.
The motion in the Malaysian parliament calls on Burma to release Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic opposition, from house arrest and to speed political reforms.
Analysts said it was too early to tell if the move by Malaysia, which will assume Asean's one-year chairmanship later this year, would generate enough momentum to force Burma to appease its critics. Mr Yeo has said that “many” foreign ministers from Asean countries are worried about Burma's taking over the chair because “Asean's credibility and cohesion will be jeopardised”.
Burma might be able to withstand pressure because of the growing investments in the country from China, India, South Korea and some Asean members, including Thailand and Singapore.
Chinese and South Korea companies have been awarded exploration contracts for natural gas, Burma's biggest exports, while Shin Corp, owned by the family of the Thai prime minister, has a telecommunications venture.
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