by Martin Abbugao
South Korea- Military-ruled Myanmar and its treatment of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi are casting a cloud over the ASEAN bloc as it tries to focus on strengthening international trade links.
Analysts said trade, investment and the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea were the dominant themes at a summit of Southeast Asian leaders with their South Korean host in the island of Jeju.
But the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) cannot brush aside new questions about its credibility after its most troublesome member Myanmar brought fresh charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, they said.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the current ASEAN chair, was trying to convene a meeting of its leaders later Monday on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Korea Summit, diplomatic sources said.
Abhisit said in Bangkok Sunday that Aung San Suu Kyi?s trial, which has drawn strong international condemnation, would be discussed.
Aung San Suu Kyi is on trial for violating the terms of her house arrest after an uninvited American swam to her lakeside home. She has been under various forms of detention without trial for more than 13 of the past 19 years.
"ASEAN was bogged down (by Myanmar) last week in its meeting with Europe," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
She was referring to last week's gathering in Hanoi of Asian and European foreign ministers.
"The failure of ASEAN to take a strong stand on Myanmar has seriously undermined the credibility of the organisation. ASEAN as an organisation cannot evolve without Myanmar taking steps to show it genuinely respects the norms of the international community," she told AFP.
Analysts and diplomats said the problem has become especially acute since ASEAN members including Myanmar signed a charter, or mini-constitution, which came into force last year.
Under the charter they commit themselves "to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Myanmar however is "behaving as if it has not signed the charter at all," a Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP.
"Even with Myanmar on its back, ASEAN is doing quite well expanding its trade ties. Imagine what it can do without having to deal with the baggage of Myanmar," he said on condition of anonymity.
"ASEAN members are fed up with Myanmar, and although they are not saying so publicly, many would like Myanmar to leave," said Welsh.
"Its intractable failure to respect basic human rights stains ASEAN and every ASEAN country indirectly.? She said however that expelling Myanmar from the 10-nation grouping was not the solution.
"More pressure on Myanmar to act responsibly is essential. ASEAN needs to work with all the Asian countries to send a consistent message that their treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi is not acceptable," Welsh added.
Negotiations for a region-to-region free trade pact between ASEAN and the European Union have failed to make significant progress due largely to European concerns over human rights abuses and lack of democracy in Myanmar.
Some European countries are now proposing that the EU negotiate trade pacts with individual ASEAN states rather than with the bloc as a whole.
Analysts said Myanmar will also be a sticking point should ASEAN and the United States seek a free trade pact.
"The continued imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi by the Burmese regime is a reminder that we cannot take for granted the institution of democracy," Ann Taylor, Britain's Minister for International Defence and Security, told a security forum in Singapore on Sunday.
Myanmar has rejected the international condemnation, saying it will resist interference in its domestic affairs.
Panitan Wattayanagorn, spokesman for Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, told AFP discussions about Aung San Suu Kyi at international forums involving ASEAN could not be sidestepped.
"You cannot avoid this issue," he said, adding however that Myanmar needs more time to put reforms in place.