Southeast Asian ministers on Tuesday wrangled over how to handle Myanmar's refusal to embrace reforms, with intense debate over the wording of their statement on their troublesome neighbour.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had been expected to issue a strong criticism of Myanmar in its communiqué at the end of foreign ministers' talks, but some countries were pushing for it to be watered down.
Discussions on the statement went into overtime late on Tuesday, with an ASEAN official who said that "extended talks on Myanmar" were responsible for the delay.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the continuing problems with the military junta in Yangon had affected the world's perception of the 10-member regional bloc.
"The situation in Myanmar is impacting upon the image and credibility of ASEAN. We would very much like to have Myanmar move forward with the rest of ASEAN," he said in a speech on Tuesday.
A senior Indonesian official said Monday that some members -- believed to be the less-developed nations Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam -- had initially succeeded in a campaign for the ASEAN statement to be toned down.
A mid-July draft of the communiqué included a call for the release of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition figures in detention.
It also expressed "disappointment" that Malaysia's Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar was not permitted to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi when he travelled to Yangon in March as ASEAN's envoy.
But later versions of the draft showed the entire passage in brackets, indicating it was still under negotiation.
An official from an ASEAN country said Tuesday that the paragraphs on both Myanmar and North Korea were still being debated as the ministers began their full day of talks, after no agreement was reached at a dinner on Monday.
"The two main issues have been North Korea and Myanmar. The key now is Myanmar," he told the agency.
Host country Malaysia along with Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines were believed to be campaigning for a tougher statement.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said Tuesday that the group was urging Myanmar to take more tangible steps towards promised reforms.
"We are somewhat frustrated, to be frank with you, by the lack of progress," he told reporters. "They have tried to explain to us but we are not convinced."
Myanmar already faces heavy sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, but the Indonesian minister said that ASEAN was not considering such punitive measures.
"We are not talking about sanctions. It is not the ASEAN way. We will continue to engage with Myanmar," he said.
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said after Monday's dinner that the ministers had discussed a new approach on Myanmar, which has snubbed ASEAN's efforts to push for democratic reforms and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The consensus view is ASEAN needs to give Myanmar a bit more space, but this also means that ASEAN cannot be defending Myanmar on all issues at international forums," he said.
Yeo downplayed suggestions that ASEAN was completely giving up on its efforts to push for change in Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military for four decades.
ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong said Monday that ministers would decide this week whether to ask the United Nations to take over the job of putting pressure on Myanmar.
"Myanmar has decided that the UN ought to be the most important agency with which it interlocutes," said Yeo, noting that a UN envoy who visited Yangon soon after Syed Hamid was given red-carpet treatment and a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi.