The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) ministers grappling with the issue at an annual retreat in the central Philippines island of Cebu were expected to reach a common stand by the end of the day's proceedings on Monday, an official said.

The question has exposed divisions among the 10-nation group, with older members such as the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia demanding real democratic change in the country.

Newer members such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos have taken a more supportive stand, some invoking Asean's long-held tradition of consensus building and non-interference in the affairs of its members.

Call for reform

Myanmar, internationally condemned for political and rights abuses including the detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is due to take the alphabetically rotating chairmanship of Asean in 2006.

Myanmar faces criticism for 
human rights abuses 

The United States and the European Union, which have imposed economic sanctions on the country, have been pressuring the regional grouping to block its chairmanship.

A senior Philippine diplomat at the Cebu retreat said Myanmar could either relinquish the position or make reforms to underscore its commitment to their "road map to democracy".

"It's either they stay by making compromises or voluntarily give up the chairmanship," the diplomat said.

Credibility risk

The military government could opt to save face by relinquishing the chairmanship, saying it is busy with the road map, which includes talks on drawing up a new constitution that have been condemned internationally as a sham.

If it ignore the criticisms and maintain the status quo, the whole of Asean risks losing credibility with its Western partners, the diplomat said.

"I think everybody knows that the rotation is [followed] every time"

Senior diplomat from Laos

Myanmar Foreign Minister U Nyan Win rejected the EU and US calls to give up the Asean chairmanship as he arrived in Cebu on Saturday for the retreat.

"That is their attitude, not ours. We can decide ourselves because we are an independent country," the minister said.

Asked if he felt his country's record on human rights and democracy qualified it to chair Asean, he said: "This is our responsibility. This is all the Asean [members'] attitude."

Following tradition

A senior diplomat from Laos, which is chairing the retreat, said Asean could not risk abandoning its smaller members because of Western dictates and he did not expect it would break from tradition by refusing Myanmar the chairmanship.

"I think everybody knows that the rotation is [followed] every time," the official said.

"I don't really think there will be concurrent drastic change from the principle," he added, noting that since Asean was founded in 1967 none of its members had abdicated the chairmanship.

"If Myanmar gives up, Myanmar will not follow the principle. There has been no precedent so far. Since 1967, I have not seen any country that had to skip over its chairmanship. I think that principle is very important, very sacred," he said.