ASEAN ministers meeting over Myanmar stalemate

Southeast Asian foreign ministers face tough choices on how to respond to Myanmar 's failure to introduce democratic reform and release pro-democracy leaders when they begin talks Thursday on the resort island of Bali . The 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations is struggling to achieve a consensus on how to push Myanmar to reform, hampered by its long-standing policy of noninterference in member states' domestic affairs.

"There is a feeling that Myanmar is dragging us down in terms of our credibility and image," Malaysia 's Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said Tuesday in Malaysia . "ASEAN must discuss this matter frankly." Ministers began arriving Wednesday for the two-day talks in this hill town that are expected to decide on ASEAN's next step.

Syed Hamid, who recently returned from an observation mission to Myanmar , has said that isolating Myanmar or applying sanctions would be counterproductive, but Singapore 's foreign minister last month said the grouping might have to "distance" itself from the country to force change. Myanmar 's poor reputation is not just an embarrassment to ASEAN, but an impediment to stronger trade ties with markets in the European Union and the United States , both of which have imposed sanctions on the country and calling on the grouping to take action over Myanmar .

Some within the region are now calling for Myanmar 's membership to be suspended. "It would be nothing short of shameful if ASEAN simply sings the same old song that Myanmar should be given more time to change, while again refusing to take tough action against the country," said a recent editorial in The Jakarta Post. "The generals there have cheated ASEAN for too many years," it said.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, and the current crop of generals took power in 1988. They called elections in 1990 but refused to recognize the results that gave a resounding victory to the political party of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi is currently under house arrest and has spent 10 of the last 16 years in custody at various times. Hundreds of other dissidents are in jail, and the New York-based Human Rights Watch recently said recently the country was one of the most repressive in Asia .

ASEAN was formed nearly four decades ago. Its members are Brunei , Cambodia , Indonesia , Laos , Malaysia , the Philippines , Singapore , Thailand , Vietnam and Myanmar . Myanmar was admitted as a member in 1997 despite strong opposition from Western nations, reports the AP.

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