Southeast Asian nations should reject Myanmar's request to chair their regional grouping in 2014 unless the government releases political prisoners and takes other concrete steps to improve human rights, a U.S.-based rights group said Friday.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, will gather in the Indonesian capital over the weekend to discuss regional security, economic developments and strategies to boost transportation links in the region.
Among those attending will be Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, who heads the military-backed party that overwhelmingly won general elections late last year.
After arriving in Jakarta on Thursday, Thein Sein asked Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, ASEAN's current chair, to back Myanmar's bid to take over the position in 2014.
Yudhoyono agreed to raise the issue at the leaders' summit, and some countries have already indicated they would not oppose.
"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," Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. Myanmar was formerly known as Burma.
Pearson said such a decision would turn ASEAN into a "laughingstock."
The regional grouping is supposed to rotate its chair between member countries _ Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam _ every year.
Myanmar was forced to skip its turn in 2005, however, after coming under heavy pressure from the international community over slow progress on national reconciliation and human rights.
Human Rights Watch said Friday that _ despite Myanmar's recent release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi _ much more needs to be done.
In addition to the release of political prisoners, member states should set clear benchmarks for Myanmar, including dialogue with all political and ethnic parties, the group said.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters he had been asked by Yudhoyono to visit Myanmar to find out whether it is prepared to take over the chairmanship.
"However, (Myanmar's) proposal needs to be discussed jointly by the other ASEAN leaders," Natalegawa said. "We need more detailed information on Myanmar's readiness."