Burma's military government is facing continuing calls for political reform from fellow members of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Singapore's prime minister is now visiting Burma, not long after his government expressed concern over the slow pace of reforms.
The visit of Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong to Burma takes place as pressure increases within the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) for Rangoon to speed up political reforms. Burma is scheduled to take the chair of the 10-member body in 2006.
But some members say Burma should be prevented from leading ASEAN if it does not carry out political reforms. Singapore's Foreign Ministry recently expressed concern over the slow pace of reform and warned that ASEAN foreign ministers may put pressure on Burma at an informal meeting in the Philippines on April ninth.
Mr. Lee, who arrived Wednesday as part of a tour of three Southeast Asian countries, is to meet with Burma's military leader, General Than Shwe and Prime Minister Soe Win.
Gary Rodan, director of the Asia Research Center at Murdoch University in Western Australia, says the visit is an opportunity for Singapore, Burma's largest foreign investor, to press for reform.
He said, "There is an opportunity here for Lee Hsein Loong to very quickly make a mark in foreign policy. It depends very much on how much he sees this as an opportunity to enhance Singapore's role within the region and its role within ASEAN."
Malaysia and Singapore appear concerned that ASEAN's international standing will be hurt if Burma takes the chairmanship. Burma already faces tough economic sanctions and criticism from both the United States and the European Union over its human rights record.
Mr. Rodan says Singapore and Malaysia would be concerned if Burma's taking up the chair undermined their relationships with the United States and Europe - major trading partners.
The United Nations envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail, said Wednesday the country could not "swim against the tide" of democracy in Southeast Asia adding that ASEAN had been very patient with Rangoon so far.
Malaysian lawmakers have pressed to block Burma from taking up the ASEAN chair over its failure to proceed with democratic reforms and its continued detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She has spent much of the past decade under detention.
Philippine lawmakers have made a similar call. The debate within ASEAN marks a move away from the group's tradition of not interfering in the internal affairs of member states. Laos and Thailand want further talks on the issue with Burma.
Burma's military chief, General Than Shwe, has said his government was preparing for democracy through a series of reforms, and through a national convention to draft a new constitution. But critics say the convention and constitution are merely part of the military's determination to maintain its 40-year grip on power.