ASEAN in fix over Myanmar

KUALA LUMPUR: Myanmar's treatment of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has once again embarrassed its neighbours, and revived calls for the military state to be expelled from the regional bloc ASEAN.

The junta this week extended the opposition leader's house arrest for another 18 months, drawing international outrage but underlining how resistant the ruling generals are to outside pressure.

The case came just a month after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) endorsed the region's first human rights watchdog and fended off criticism it would be powerless to tackle rogue members.

"The arrest shows that the relationship between Myanmar and its ASEAN partners is not as robust as it was in the past," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia specialist with the Singapore Management University.

"ASEAN leaders are frustrated because they think they've engaged and embraced Myanmar on many different levels," she said, including unprecedented humanitarian cooperation after a devastating cyclone in 2008.

Welsh said Myanmar's insistence on putting its own domestic interests well ahead of those of its neighbours meant it would continue to cause real damage by constantly overshadowing the bloc.

"ASEAN does not want as an organisation to always be associated with Burma," she said, noting that Washington's interactions with the region have been particularly dominated by the affairs of Myanmar, which was previously known as Burma.

"Most ASEAN countries are small and they need the organisation for global representation, and when that talk is dominated by the actions of one country, it prevents regional issues from getting adequate attention." Suu Kyi's legal team is expected to appeal her latest sentence, which stemmed from a stunt in which American man John Yettaw swam to her lakeside house in May.

A prison court sentenced her to three years of hard labour after finding her guilty of breaching the terms of her incarceration, but junta strongman Than Shwe commuted the punishment to a year and a half under house arrest.

Lim Kit Siang, vice-president of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Myanmar, said the junta had shown "utter contempt" for the organisation's ideals and that regional governments must now respond with more than words.

"The time has come for ASEAN to seriously consider expulsion or at least suspension of Myanmar from ASEAN," he said in a statement.

Analysts said the timing of the latest drama was unfortunate as ASEAN members had just forged agreement on the human rights body.

"The verdict is an embarrassment for ASEAN because it has been grappling with the issue of human rights and trying to establish acceptable norms among members," said Tim Huxley from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"If political confrontation was taken to its logical conclusion, Burma could be suspended or expelled but frankly that's not going to happen," he said.

Myanmar's neighbours are concerned that if Southeast Asia's problem child is ejected from the grouping, it could be driven further into the embrace of China, which is hungry to exploit its natural resources.

There are also business interests to protect -- regional states have close business ties with Myanmar, refusing to join the United States and European Union in imposing sanctions on the regime which has been in power since 1962.

And ASEAN is hamstrung by its principle of non-interference in members' internal affairs, which during its 42-year history has prevented it from bringing errant members into line.