by Martin Abbugao
JAKARTA, INDONESIA - Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet in Indonesia on Saturday under the cloud of conflict on the Thai-Cambodia border and ongoing rights abuses in Myanmar.
Even before the presidents and prime ministers of the disparate 10-nation bloc sit down for their annual summit in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, their discussions have been framed by negative news from troubled member states.
Myanmar stole the headlines for all the wrong reasons on Friday when it was announced that the military-led country and serial human rights abuser had asked to chair the group in 2014.
US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said giving the chair to Myanmar - a pariah state in the democratic world - would be a disgrace for a group that is already struggling for credibility.
"Rewarding Burma with ASEAN's chairmanship after it staged sham elections and still holds 2,000 political prisoners would be an embarrassment for the region," HRW deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said, using the country's old name.
"ASEAN leaders need to decide if they will let Burma demote ASEAN to the laughing stock of intergovernmental forums."
Myanmar skipped its turn to chair ASEAN in 2006 due to international pressure for democratic reforms, but only on condition that it could ask to lead the group at a later time if it felt it was ready, officials said.
Myanmar President Thein Sein met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - both former generals - in Jakarta on Thursday on what is his first trip abroad as president since he was sworn in on March 30.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa confirmed Myanmar's request would be raised at the two-day summit, but suggested that a decision would be deferred until the country's "readiness" for the job could be assessed.
Myanmar is a constant source of embarrassment for ASEAN's more democratic states, trumping other problem members such as communist Vietnam and Laos, which have significant human rights issues of their own.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November shortly after an election, Myanmar's first in 20 years, that led to the handover of power from the military to a nominally civilian government.
Her release was welcomed worldwide, but Western governments who impose sanctions on Myanmar want the new government to do more to demonstrate its commitment to human rights.
Fighting along the Thai-Cambodia border is another source of embarrassment for ASEAN, which announced in February that it had clinched a deal to send military observers to the area, only for the fighting to continue.
Eighteen people have been killed and 85,000 temporarily displaced by the dispute, which centres on territory surrounding an 11th-century temple owned by Cambodia.
ASEAN observers have yet to be deployed.
Natalegawa, who has tried to mediate between the two sides, admitted that the fighting was "not quite right" for a grouping that is desperate to focus attention on its plans to create an integrated economic zone by 2015.
"We're seeing a status quo, meaning exchange of fire and artillery, as we talk about ASEAN community. That's not quite right. There's something wrong if we keep on doing this," he said.
Officials said other matters to be discussed at the summit include human trafficking, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East Timor's bid for membership. --AFP