Momentum is growing within the Association of South-East Asian Nations to deprive Burma of its scheduled chairmanship of the organisation next year because of its failure to introduce democratic reforms.

The effort to prevent Burma chairing Asean is being led by Malaysia, which was instrumental in persuading in the organisation to accept Burma as a member in 1997 in spite of its poor human rights record.

Malaysia’s ruling party is expected to introduce a motion in parliament next week calling for Burma to be passed over for the chairmanship, which is seen as a significant move to mount prssure on the military government in Rangoon.

Singapore, which previously adopted a low-key approach on Burma, said recently that the failure by Burma to pursue promised political reforms posed a problem for Asean.

Foreign ministers from Asean members will discuss the Burma issue next month at a meeting in the Philippines. George Yeo, the Singapore foreign minister, said that “some hard messages may very well have to be put across because what happens in (Burma) will affect Asean as a whole.”

Asean fears that its failure to deal with Burma could hurt the region’s relations with the US and the EU, which have threatened to boycott all Asean meetings held in Burma if it assumes the chairmanship on a rotating basis in late 2006.

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 Malaysia-led campaign to press Burma because it still hoped 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 from house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democractic opposition, and speed political reforms.

This reflects a reappraisal of the strategy of Mahahtir Mohamad, the former Malaysian leader, who pushed for Burma’s membership in Asean on the theory that engagement would promote democracy and civilian rule.

Analysts said it is too early to tell if the move by Malaysia, which will assume Asean’s one-year chairmanship later this year, will generate enough momentum to force Burma to appease its critics.

Mr Yeo has said many foreign ministers from Asean countries were worried about Burma taking over the chair because “Asean’s credibility and cohesion will be jeopardised.”

But Burma might be able to withstand pressure because of growing investments in the country by 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 in the country.

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