Military-dominated Myanmar will chair Southeast Asia's regional bloc in 2014, officials said Thursday, a decision that will likely irk the U.S. and others not yet satisfied with the country's fledgling reforms.
The chairmanship is supposed to rotate annually among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, also known as ASEAN. But Myanmar, which has more than 2,000 political prisoners, was forced to skip its turn in 2006 because of intense criticism of its rights record.
It has since held its first elections in 20 years, released Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and eased some restrictions on the media.
It also suspended work on a controversial Chinese dam despite the potential of antagonizing its closest ally.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Southeast Asian leaders meeting on the resort island of Bali had decided Myanmar should chair ASEAN in 2014.
"It's not about the past, it's about the future, what leaders are doing now," he told reporters. "We're trying to ensure the process of change continues."
Several Western nations and human rights groups, however, say it's too early to celebrate.
They want more evidence Myanmar _ one of the world's most isolated and autocratic countries for a half century _ has really changed.
Though the new government is nominally civilian, it's led by a former general who has promised to liberalize politics.
So far he's failed to open full, meaningful dialogue with the opposition. And concerns remain for long-persecuted ethnic minorities in the country, which is also known as Burma.
Though some political prisoners have been released in recent months, many more remain behind bars.
"Burma has long been a millstone around ASEAN's neck, and that won't be removed by making it the chair in 2014," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
It's more important that the regional grouping set clear benchmarks for reform and closely monitor progress, she said.
Suu Kyi has given cautious backing to the reforms but hasn't appeared overly supportive of Myanmar's bid to head the regional grouping.
"As far as I'm concerned, what is more important than the chairmanship of ASEAN is that the lives of the people of our country should improve visibly," she told reporters in Yangon this week.
The U.S. and other Western countries have yet to ease political and economic sanctions imposed against the old military junta for its repressive policies.
ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report.