Foreign ministers of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, say the military government of Burma has agreed to forego its turn as chairman of the group next year. The ministers made the announcement Tuesday in Laos, ending months of speculation.
An official statement issued Tuesday said Burma had asked to postpone its turn as ASEAN chairman in order to focus on national reconciliation and democratization - a process announced two years ago, which the Burmese government says will bring democracy.
The statement expressed gratitude for Rangoon's decision, and said Burma could take its turn as chairman when it is ready to do so.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been divided for months over whether Burma should assume the rotating chairmanship as scheduled next year.
Some ASEAN members privately said Burma as chairman would undermine and embarrass the association, because of the Burmese military government's authoritarian record. But others said that for ASEAN to bar Burma - which now goes by the name Myanmar - would violate a long-held ASEAN tradition.
Government spokesman Yong Chantalangsy said the rotating chairmanship was a principle that ASEAN members would respect. "With regard to Myanmar, let Myanmar say [what it will do]," he said. "But ASEAN does not have a single voice which will question this principle."
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, speaking (in Bangkok) on his way to Laos, praised diplomatic efforts by ASEAN members to ease the crisis over the chairmanship. But he indicated that international pressure on Burma would continue, because of Rangoon's human rights record and its detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"We want to see political reform and we want to see Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest," said Mr. Downer. "We want to see the application of international norms of human rights in Burma."
Malaysia is to assume the ASEAN chairmanship in December at a summit in Kuala Lumpur. Burma would have been next. Following the Burmese decision, the Philippines became next in line after Malaysia.
The ASEAN ministers Tuesday signed an accord establishing a development fund to support lower trade barriers between their members. And they agreed to improve cooperation in responding to natural disasters, such as the tsunami that devastated parts of the region seven months ago, causing the disappearance of 250,000 people.