Monday, 21 July 2008

Observers doubt Myanmar on ASEAN charter pledges

SINGAPORE (AFX-Thomson Financial) - Military-ruled Myanmar on Monday formally ratified the ASEAN Charter but observers doubted the junta will live up to the document's ideals on democracy and human rights.

Foreign Minister Nyan Win presented his country's ratification during an annual meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In the charter, ASEAN members commit "to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms."

ASEAN has been widely criticised for its policy of "constructive engagement" regarding member Myanmar, which is under European Union and United States sanctions over its human rights record.

Myanmar was also severely criticised internationally for its delay in allowing foreign aid into the country after a May 2-3 cyclone that left 138,000 people dead or missing.

It subsequently belatedly allowed aid workers to enter under an arrangement with ASEAN and the United Nations.

"Myanmar's ratification of the charter today demonstrates our strong commitment to embrace the common values and aspirations of the people of ASEAN to build the ASEAN community, one that's together in partnership in a caring and sharing community," said the junta's foreign minister Nyan Win.

But Egoy Bans, a Filipino activist pushing for democratisation in Myanmar, said he "does not believe that there is sincerity" by the junta to go through democratic change.

He said ASEAN must work toward "concrete reforms" inside Myanmar, as implied by the charter.

"I know it's sort of a challenge for ASEAN to really stand by its charter," said Bans, of the Free Burma Coalition group of independent democracy advocates.

Just seven days after the cyclone, Myanmar insisted on holding a referendum on a military-backed constitution. It said that despite the devastation, 98 percent of voters turned out for the ballot and more than 92 percent endorsed their constitution.

The opposition party of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, held under house arrest for most of the past 18 years, dismissed the referendum outcome as a "sham."

Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, noted there are differing definitions of democracy, good governance and human rights.

He said Myanmar knows that other ASEAN countries also have similar difficulties conforming to outside standards.

"They're not going to take the view that they have to change their approach to 'disciplined democracy'," he said of Myanmar.

Wilson, now a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, said that despite its pledge to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, the charter "doesn't have the same force or meaning... that in Western countries we would expect it to have."

The charter aims to give ASEAN a legal framework and sets out principles and rules for members.

It also transforms ASEAN, established in 1967, into a legal entity, a move that will give the group greater clout in international negotiations.

The charter resulted from a long and controversial drafting process that saw some of the strong recommendations from ASEAN elder statesmen watered down or dropped, including provisions on sanctions and expulsion.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the document will come into force on the 30th day after the 10th member ratifies.

Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines are the remaining members of the 10-nation ASEAN which must still ratify the document, although Manila has said it will not do so until Myanmar improves its human rights record.

But Surin said he was "very optimistic" all members would ratify the charter in time for the ASEAN summit in Bangkok later this year.

Myanmar regime ratifies Asean charter including human rights body

MYANMAR (ST)has ratified a proposed international charter that includes controversial human rights provisions, officials said on Monday, a day after regional powers slammed the nation's ruling junta for extending opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's detention.

Myanmar's ratification of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) charter is to be formalised at a ceremony later Monday.

But question marks remain about whether Myanmar's junta, which has jailed hundreds of political dissidents, including Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi, is willing to adhere to the principles of human rights and respect for rule of law enshrined in the charter.

It was also unclear whether the proposed Asean human rights body, the details of which have yet to be hammered out, will have any substantive enforcement or monitoring power.

The charter, expected to come into force by next year, aims to strengthen the 10-member group of Asian nations, giving it power to sue and be sued, and establishing enforceable financial, trade and environmental rules.

The most controversial part of the charter is a proposed human rights body.

'It's high time that we concretize the human rights of the people of Asean', said Ms Rosario Manalo, the Philippine representative to the panel.

Still, it is clear that the body will not have the power to sanction countries that violate the rights of its citizens.

The Philippines and possibly Thailand will push for the body to have the power to at least monitor human rights violations, said one South-east Asian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to speak to the media.

Myanmar is the seventh member of Asean to ratify the charter. The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia have balked at endorsing it, demanding that Myanmar first give firmer commitments to democracy.

The human rights panel, which will hold its first meeting Monday to determine the scope of the human rights body, is expected to submit a draft of its recommendations to the Asean leaders' summit in December.

Ignoring international criticism, Myanmar's junta on May 27 extended Suu Kyi's detention by another year, drawing an extraordinary rebuke Sunday from Asean members who usually shy from criticising each other.

Myanmar officials have issued no public response to that criticism, although its representative at the meeting, Foreign Minister Nyan Win, suggested Sunday that Suu Kyi could be freed from house arrest in about six months.

Suu Kyi has now been detained for more than 12 of the last 18 years at her home in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. -- AP

Thailand Refugee Policy Gets Mixed Reviews

The Irrawaddy News

BANGKOK — Thailand’s treatment of refugees has come under scrutiny for confining some refugees in camps for years and allegedly forcing others back home where they risk persecution.

A report issued by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) in June ranked Thailand as one of the 10 worst places for refugees.

The report criticized Thailand’s refusal to recognize most Burmese refugees in its territories and for confining 140,000 refugees to camps along the Thai-Burmese border and refusing them the right to work.

The report also cited Thailand’s treatment of Lao Hmong asylum-seekers, some 8,000 of whom have been living in the Huai Nam Khao camp in Petchabun Province since 2004, and the forced return of such refugees who fear persecution once home.

The Hmong claim they fled harassment and persecution in their homeland because of ties to the CIA-backed force that fought the communists in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the first week of July, the Thai military returned more than 800 Hmong from the Huai Nam Khao camp to Laos.

The returns followed a protest of 5,000 Hmong, who broke down a camp fence on June 20 and began marching to Bangkok to raise awareness about their plight and voice concern over a bilateral agreement reached by the Thai and Lao governments to send them back to Laos.

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement about the incident on its Web site on June 30, refuting allegations that the Hmong had been forcibly repatriated.

“These persons expressed the wish to return to Laos of their own accord after negotiations with the Thai officials proved that their demands could not be met,” the statement read. “The Thai side thereafter facilitated their return in a dignified and humane manner.”

The statement claimed authorities had established a screening process for the Hmong, ostensibly to identify all individuals and family members.

But on June 23, the UN’s refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), wrote to the Thai government to express its concern over the return of the Lao Hmong.

The UNHCR has never been given access by the Thai government to the Lao refugees at the Huai Nam Khao camp.

“We would like to help the Thai authorities in the screening process to determine if any of the Hmong refugees are eligible for refugee status, and able to stay in Thailand,” UNHCR senior regional public information officer, Kitty McKinsey, told IRIN in Bangkok. “If an outside agency were allowed access, it could add transparency to the whole process.”

Since 2005, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been the only group allowed to work with the Hmong inside the Huai Nam Khao camp.

“The level of anxiety is extremely high [among the Hmong],” Gilles Isard, MSF head of mission in Thailand, said, adding that many of the refugees feared they would be punished by the Thai army for having demonstrated.

“If the international community does not react firmly against this return, then this process of repatriation will continue without any external control or humanitarian assistance for the returnees,” he added.

Thailand has not ratified the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a key legal document in defining a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states.

“In spite of having not signed the convention, they have been very hospitable to refugees,” McKinsey said. “Thailand has hosted 1.2 million refugees over the past 30 years, so that shouldn’t be forgotten.”

The UNHCR has a mandate to work with 140,000 refugees from Burma in nine camps along the Thai border.

According to McKinsey, the UNHCR would like to see more freedom of movement for refugees so they can move out of the camps to work and study.

Since early 2005, the UNHCR has been involved in the resettlement of more than 30,000 Burmese refugees from camps on the Thai-Burmese border to third countries.

“Although Thailand is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention and protocol, its humanitarian record in providing asylum to refugees is better than that of many countries that have acceded,” Sally Thompson, executive director of the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium, told IRIN.

She added that the overriding policy of providing temporary shelter in enclosed camps was driven by national security concerns and the fear of an upsurge in refugee populations.

Despite difficult conditions, NGOs have a good working relationship with the Thai government and have maintained access to the camps to provide essential services, according to Thompson.

The Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) is a news service that forms part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). But this report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

Burma a Challenge for Asean: Top US official

The Irrawaddy News

NEW YORK — The regional Asean grouping, which has taken the lead along with the UN in organizing humanitarian relief work in the Irrawaddy delta after Cyclone Nargis, faces a tough challenge in dealing with military-ruled Burma, says a top US official in charge of the region.

"It's a tough challenge for the world, for the region, for Asean," Deputy Secretary of State Scot Marciel, the US's Asean envoy, said in Washington last week. A transcript of a press briefing held at the Foreign Press Center was released by the State Department on Friday.

In his first briefing to foreign media following Cyclone Nargis, Marciel said Asean has in the past tried its best to engage Burma and make things move in a positive direction.

"I think they have seen it hasn't been that successful. I don't say that critically. I mean, a lot of other approaches haven't been successful either," he said.

Marciel, however, said Asean made a strong statement following the regime's crackdown on peaceful protesters last year.

"Asean came out quite forcefully, I think, with an unprecedented statement expressing revulsion at the crackdown and urging the regime to begin to engage with the opposition, release political prisoners and move toward a political transition," he said.

He said Asean’s policy of consensus on all the body’s decisions and statements limits the possibility of any tougher actions towards Burma, which is one of its 10 members

"For Asean as an institution, to make decisions or issue statements requires a consensus, including by Burma. So that, to some extent, limits what Asean as an institution can do. But I think different Asean members have been working, I think fairly actively, trying to encourage the Burmese regime to open up," he said.

He said he appreciated the efforts of Asean Secretary-General, Surin Pitsuwan in encouraging the regime to open up to international assistance following the devastating cyclone. "I think they've achieved some success, and we welcome their efforts. I think it's been important," he said.

"We certainly hope that they will continue to encourage the Burmese to open up and to begin to grapple with their broader political issues, because it's the broader political issues that are keeping the country down."

Conceding that Asean and the US do not agree on every tactic, he said: "That's okay. Overall, I think we want them to remain active."

As Ambassador for Asean affairs, Marciel said: "We're trying to broaden our engagement with the region by building on the bilateral relations and by our existing good relationship with Asean, focusing more on engaging with Asean as an entity."

Referring to the upcoming Asean Regional Forum meeting, which will be attended by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he said two issues involving Burma will be discussed.

"One is the response to Cyclone Nargis…how relief efforts are going and what more the Burmese authorities might do to facilitate international assistance."

"I would expect there would also be some discussion about the broader political issues that underlie the fundamental problems of Burma. Again, I don't want to try to predict how the conversation will go because it is unpredictable," he said.

The Mekong dilemma

The Star Online

DUBBED the last frontier markets in Asia – Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar – hold positive long-term prospects in attracting more foreign direct investments (FDIs), but they will need to address the challenge of managing their economies well, especially during the current global economic slowdown.

Most economists contacted by StarBiz are projecting that the Mekong countries' gross domestic product (GDP) would decline this year. There will be slower FDIs and several mega investment projects would have to be put on hold as part of the respective governments' monetary policy battle to contain rising inflation lead by higher fuel and food prices.

Singapore-based Fortis Bank senior economist Joseph Tan said there would be increasing investment risks in the Mekong countries this year after having posted sound economic growth and strong FDI inflows over the past five years.

“Like the rest of the world, higher inflation in the recent months will challenge these governments' monetary policy although part of the inflation was imported through the depreciating US dollar,” he said.

The shortcoming of the Mekong countries was in their inexperience in macro economic management, he said.

While the countries' prospects remain positive due to abundant natural resources, competitive labour cost and young population, Tan said the main question would be how well these countries could undertake integration with the world's economy.

Vietnam and Cambodia have ascended to join the World Trade Organisation, but Myanmar and Laos are perceived as continuing to have difficult internal policies and international relationship problems.

“Many are also questioning the lack of transparency in terms of economic-related data collected in these countries,” Tan said.


Asian Development Bank (ADB) said in its latest report that Vietnam's inflation was expected to hit 18% in 2008 from 12% in 2007, while its GDP would drop to 7% from 8.4% last year.

Singapore-based Asian Forecasting Group action economics director David Cohen said these figures would create uncertainties to investors.

“However, I believe Vietnam in the mid-to-long term will continue to attract FDIs given its liberalisation in the manufacturing and services sectors, as well as its close proximity to China.”

In 2007, Vietnam's FDIs hit a record US$23.1bil. Despite the rosy FDI figures, Standard & Poor's, however, lowered its 2008 outlook for the country early last month citing “widespread and economic distress.”

In efforts to stem inflation, which started in 2007, the Government raised the benchmark interest rates and reserve requirements early this year.

ADB said while inflation would pose problems in terms of infrastructure and skills constraint, private industrial manufacturing was growing fast. The service sector such as trade, finance and tourism were also expanding.

Malaysia is one of the top 10 investors in Vietnam over the past five years with interest mainly in real estate and property as well as manufacturing.

Deloitte Vietnam senior tax manager Kevin Lam recently said there were 323 projects by Malaysian companies valued at US$1.86bil, excluding the US$10bil and US$2bil investments committed by Berjaya Group and Gamuda Bhd respectively.

He said Vietnam's accession into WTO had stimulated the property boom where prime land can cost up to US$15,000 per sq metre. To-date, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Da Nang and Hai Phong were among the focus of international real estate investors.

Of late, the government is also trying to attract foreign investment into onshore mining and extraction with China as its end consumer.


Cambodia has become the destination of FDIs after its first-ever general election in 1993.

Based on approved foreign-invested projects, the majority of FDIs came from Asia, particularly Malaysia, Taiwan and China, which accounted for about 60%.

The garment, tourism, infrastructure, construction and agriculture sectors are drivers of investments into Cambodia currently.

The Government is also looking at building more hydro power plants to handle its energy needs.

The Cambodian electricity prices – the highest in the region – remain a major obstacle in attracting FDIs.

It is four times more expensive than Thailand and Vietnam and the demand for electricity, which is growing 15% per year is also putting pressure on the country's fragmented power system.

An economist with a bank-backed brokerage said Cambodia's GDP was expected to ease to 7% in 2008 and 2009 mainly due to a fall in garment exports given intense competition from Vietnam and China.

While Cambodia's potential exploitable oil and gas (O&G) deposits remain uncertain, he also expects the exports and tourism sectors to be vulnerable to global economic sentiment.

“As Cambodia is slated as one of the fastest growing economy in South East Asia this year, I expect FDIs to grow but the question is whether it will come primarily from the east or western nations,” he added.

On the back of rising inflation, potentially weaker garment exports and slower construction and tourism sectors this year, the economist said the challenge for Cambodia would be to diversify its sources of growth.

The domestic risks would be bad weather, which could lower agriculture production.

Also, any sudden reversal in rapidly rising land prices and real estate speculation could prompt a generalised slowdown in bank lending, temper construction activity and impede other investments.

Currently, Malaysia is one of the largest foreign investors in Cambodia with investment worth over US$20bil.

There over 200 Malaysian companies operating in Cambodia, out of which about 90 companies are Malaysian-owned and the remaining joint ventures.

Malaysian investment in Cambodia are in the area of banking, logging and wood processing, hotel, textiles and garment, transportation and forwarding, plantation, construction, education, power, petroleum and services.

Major Malaysian companies operating in Cambodia include Malayan Banking Bhd, Public Bank Bhd, Petroliam Nasional Bhd, Muhibbah Engineering Bhd, YTL Corp Bhd and the Sunway Group.


It is interesting to note that over 90% or US$474.3mil of FDIs in Myanmar in 2007 was funnelled into the O&G sectors, according to its Ministry of National Planning Development report.

However, there were no new investment in mining, real estate, hotel and tourism, transport, power and the industrial sectors in 2007.

At the same time, Western countries either ban or discourage investment in Myanmar as a way of pressuring its ruling junta to improve poor human rights record and hand over power to a democratically elected government.

Asean countries as well as China, India and South Korea have invested heavily in Myanmar with interests in power at over 43%, O&G 21% and manufacturing 11%.

Malaysia is the fourth largest investor in Myanmar with about US$660.7mil invested mainly in real estate and property, O&G and manufacturing. It is also the largest real estate and property investor in Myanmar.

Last year, sources close to the Myanmar Ministry of Energy were quoted as saying that Malaysia's Rimbunan Retrogas Ltd would be granted the rights to undertake the A-5 deep-water block off the western Rakhine coast.


Laos, one of the few remaining one-party Communist states, began decentralising control and encouraging private enterprise in 1986. The results were striking with growth averaging 6% per year in 1988 to 2007, except during the short-lived drop caused by the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Economists said the economy would continue to benefit from aid from international donors and foreign investment in hydropower and mining.

ADB in its report said Laos' GDP would improve to 8% in 2008 from 7.5% in 2007. The Laotian economy has grown by more than 7% for the past two years, driven by foreign investment in the development of the hydroelectric power industry, fast expanding gold and copper mining activities, and a rapidly growing tourism industry.

The latest local company to venture into Laos is Rohas Euco Industries Bhd, which will jointly invest in a US$100mil Nam Sane 3 hydropower project in Xieng Khuang province.

From 1992 to 2007, about 60 projects/businesses with Malaysian investments have been approved in Laos. The total value is estimated at US$600mil with investments in agriculture, garment manufacturing, wood industry, trading, hotel, restaurant and education.

ASEAN tackles border spat, rights and Myanmar

By Manny Mogato

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Southeast Asian ministers urged Cambodia and Thailand on Monday to show restraint over a military standoff on their border and took steps to create a regional human rights body.

The 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations were also tackling spiraling food and fuel prices at their annual meeting on Monday, as worsening inflation adds to political turbulence in the region.

The group, seeking to create a European Union-style community encompassing a half-billion people with a combined GDP of $1.2 trillion, was set to again express profound disappointment with junta-ruled Myanmar, its most problematic member, according to a draft communique.

With Thailand and Cambodia holding high-level talks on Monday aimed at resolving the dispute over a 900-year-old temple on their border, ASEAN ministers offered to help mediate.

"The situation has escalated dangerously, with troops from both sides faced off on disputed territory near the Preah Vihear temple," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech opening the ASEAN meeting. "ASEAN could not stand idly by without damaging its credibility."

ASEAN's diplomacy on the issue "reflects a growing sense that ASEAN is no longer just a 'talk-shop', but a maturing community of nations prepared to act to advance its collective interests", the prime minister said.

After a week of diplomatic sparring and a build-up of troops, expectations for a breakthrough were low, but both sides said they wanted to ease tensions.

Analysts say domestic politics in Thailand, where the temple is known as Khao Pra Viharn, have played a key role in fuelling the border dispute.


The foreign ministers, representing countries that include a kingdom, a junta, communist states and democracies, are expected to agree a framework for a landmark human rights body.

"It's going to be tough negotiations," said an official nominated to the high-level panel that will negotiate on the functions and powers of the proposed human rights body.

"The member states remained deeply divided on the actual form and substance of the body."

The foreign ministers are discussing "the growing challenge posed by rising oil and food prices ... to our people's welfare as well as our countries' continued economic development," the draft joint communique says.

The high-growth economies of Southeast Asia are worried global financial turmoil could lead to the kind of chain reactions that destabilized them in the "Asian contagion" financial crisis of 1997-98, one Philippines official said.

spiraling prices contributed to unprecedented opposition gains in Malaysia's general election last March and are stoking political turmoil elsewhere in the region, including food riots and protests in some countries and export restrictions in others.

ASEAN aims to sign a landmark charter at its annual summit in December that would create an EU-style community among its members, although three countries -- Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines -- have yet to ratify the document.

"ASEAN has decided to press on with the charter's implementation without waiting for all 10 member states to ratify," Lee said in his speech.

"ASEAN cannot take its continued relevance for granted. If our efforts to achieve faster and deeper integration falter, ASEAN may well be sidelined," he said.

ASEAN's inability to get Myanmar's junta to reform has been a major stumbling block in its ambition to exert economic and diplomatic muscle.

But on Sunday, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo offered a rare ray of optimism about ASEAN's problem child, saying the generals could release detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in about half a year.

Suu Kyi has been confined for nearly 13 of the past 19 years. The draft declaration expressed "deep disappointment" Suu Kyi's detention under house arrest had been extended in May and called for her release and that of all political detainees.

(Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Statement by ASEAN Chair on the political situation in Myanmar

AAP Sprinter


Minister: Dear Friends, I’m back again but this time by myself. I would like to brief you on our discussion on Myanmar this evening.

Statement by ASEAN Chair.

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers had a full and frank discussion on the political situation in Myanmar. They were briefed by Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win on recent political developments, including the constitutional referendum in May 2008 and preparations for general elections to be held in 2010.

The Foreign Ministers expressed their deep disappointment that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's detention under house arrest had been extended by the Myanmar Government. They repeated the call by ASEAN Leaders for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees, as part of Myanmar's national reconciliation process. The Foreign Ministers reiterated their view that the Myanmar Government should engage in a meaningful dialogue with all political groups, and work towards a peaceful transition to democracy in the near future.

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers also encouraged Myanmar to continue working closely with the Good Offices of the UN Secretary-General and his Special Advisor Ibrahim Gambari in ensuring an inclusive process towards national reconciliation. They stressed the importance of Professor Gambari's work in helping Myanmar move forward. They welcomed the Myanmar Government’s invitation last week to Professor Gambari to visit Myanmar in August 2008 and reiterated their call for Myanmar to extend its fullest cooperation to Professor Gambari. They urged the Myanmar government to give him access to senior leaders and to facilitate meetings with the widest possible range of contacts, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Myanmar, we discussed both the political situation which I have just issued a statement on, and also on the post-Nargis situation in the Delta. For the post-Nargis situation, the PONJA report, which is the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment Report, will be formally released tomorrow at 6pm. And since there will be a separate press conference on this, with my Myanmar counterpart, the UN Secretary-General, the incoming Thai Chair and Sir John Holmes from UN OCHA, I’m holding back that part of the discussion till tomorrow and I ask for your patience. Thank you very much. Now if I could have questions on the political situation, then I will be happy to answer them here.

Q: What was the Myanmar Foreign Minister’s reply to the call by his ASEAN colleagues for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release?

Minister: Well he explained that under their law, the maximum period of detention for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is one year as approved by the Home Minister and five more years as approved by the Prime Minister as a cabinet decision, meaning a maximum of 6 years, and he told us that the 6-year limit will come up in about half a year’s time.

Q: You said that the Myanmar Minister was telling you that the detention would end in about half a year’s time, does that mean that Aung San Suu Kyi will be released after the end of the six years?

Minister: I’m just repeating what he told me, but I think that is not an inaccurate inference.

Q: But were the ASEAN ministers satisfied with that explanation?

Minister: On Myanmar, we have long taken a position which we knew did not have the full agreement of the Myanmar Foreign Minister. We understand the position he is in, and we agreed that in my statement to you, I should mention by name, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thank you very much and good night.

Myanmar says Suu Kyi may be freed soon

Why isn't she released NOW...
besides there is not such a law of 6yrs as a maximum... where did Nyan read his law?


SINGAPORE (AP) -- Myanmar's military junta has indicated to its Southeast Asian neighbors that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi could be freed from house arrest in about six months, Singapore's foreign minister said Sunday.

The hint came as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed "deep disappointment" at the decision by the junta in May to extend Suu Kyi's detention by another year. It was an unusually frank criticism of Myanmar by the region's main bloc, whose members usually stick to a policy of not interfering in each other's affairs.

The comment by Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan Win to ASEAN is the most optimistic assessment of Suu Kyi's future by the junta, and the closest to a definite timetable for her release, which has been demanded by the international community.

Nyan Win made the hint during a dinner hosted by Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo for the foreign ministers of the ten member countries of ASEAN.

Yeo said Nyan Win explained that under Myanmar law a political detainee can be held for a maximum of six years. "And he told us that the six-year limit will come up in about half a year's time," Yeo said.

Asked if this meant Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, could be released in six months, Yeo said: "That is not an inaccurate inference."

The military regime extended Suu Kyi's house arrest May 27 for the sixth straight year. She has now been detained for more than 12 of the last 18 years at her home in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party has denounced the extension as illegal, saying its interpretation of the law is that she could be held only up to five years and not six.

After the dinner meeting, the ASEAN members issued a statement critical of Myanmar.

"The foreign ministers expressed their deep disappointment that ... Suu Kyi's detention has been extended by the Myanmar government," it said, adding that the ministers repeated a call by their governments for her to be released.

The ministers urged the junta to engage in a "meaningful dialogue with all political groups and work toward a peaceful transition to democracy in the near future."

ASEAN also urged the junta to give U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari access to senior leaders and to allow meetings with "the widest possible range of contacts including Suu Kyi."

ASEAN has never made so many demands on Myanmar, and its willingness to do so now is a reflection of its frustration.