Military-ruled Myanmar's failure to fulfil its pledge to restore democracy and its continued house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has become the biggest political challenge facing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

With the bloc's frustrations with fellow member Myanmar reaching a boiling point, leaders on Monday pushed the governing generals to allow Asean ministers to visit the country to assess its progress towards democracy.

Myanmar, which keeps out reporters and recently ended visits by a UN envoy, said it would allow the Asean visit but that details need to be worked out, Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said after the 10 Asean leaders met in a retreat in Kuala Lumpur.
 
There was no discussion of whether the delegation would be able to visit Suu Kyi, though Kantathi expressed hope that the visit could help to win her release.

"We all want Aung San Suu Kyi to be free," Kantathi said.

Action urged

Amnesty International said it hoped Asean's words would be backed up by strong action.

"There is a need for Asean member states to press Myanmar harder for change," Amnesty's Asia-Pacific director Purna Sen said, adding that political prisoners "should be immediately and unconditionally released for the peaceful exercise of their rights".
 

Kuala Lumpur's summit is being
attended by a variety of leaders

Asean's annual summit was to be followed by meetings with other regional powers, culminating in Wednesday's inaugural East Asia Summit, which joins the 10-nation bloc with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Russia will attend as an observer.
 
The final meeting deals with still-vague plans for a regional economic community accounting for half the world's population, and a combined economy of $8.3 trillion.
 
The commitment level across the region varies, but Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has argued for EU-style integration.

India on Monday made a strong pitch for a pan-Asian free trade area along the lines of the European Union.

"It cannot be done in a day," he told business leaders in Kuala Lumpur. "There will be sceptics. But for believers, it is eminently possible. I am convinced that this is the only way to move forward."

Tensions

Tensions between heavyweights China and Japan are just one example of the vast hurdles.
 
China has called off a planned meeting in Kuala Lumpur with leaders of Japan and South Korea, in anger over Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a war shrine that honours Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including executed war criminals.

Indian Prime Minister Singh says
pan-Asian free trade is possible

The visits also have angered South Korea. China and South Korea, both occupied by Japanese forces before 1945, say Japan has not fully atoned for wartime atrocities.
 
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao raised the issue during his bilateral meeting on Monday with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, said Roh aide Chung Woo-sung.
 
"Japan's leader paid respect at Yasukuni Shrine five times, hurting the feelings of South Korean and Chinese people very much and putting a lot of obstacles to China-Japan relations as well as Korea-Japan relations," Chung quoted Wen as saying.
 
Koizumi did not comment publicly on the feud after arriving in Kuala Lumpur late on Sunday. He earlier played down the tensions as "temporary".
 
Strong pressure

Myanmar joined Asean in 1997, but has become an embarrassment to the bloc since then, drawing strong pressure on the region from the US and other Western powers.

Washington earlier this month called the situation in Myanmar "appalling".
 

Asean endorsed plans to write a
charter to promote democracy

The Myanmarese generals are holding a national convention that they say will draft a constitution as a step towards free elections.

But critics dismiss it as a sham because Suu Kyi's party is not attending the meeting.

Also on Monday, Asean endorsed plans to write a charter to promote democracy, human rights and good governance, a move critics hope will hold Myanmar accountable to basic human-rights principals.

Asean comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.