BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei – Just a few years ago Myanmar was an isolated dictatorship that embarrassed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with its dismal human rights record. Now it's poised to take over leadership of the 10-nation bloc for the first time — a move critics say may be premature given conflicts at home that have left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced.
The appointment of Myanmar to ASEAN's chairmanship is meant to reward the former pariah's transformation since its military junta turned over power to an elected government two years ago, and some are hopeful that putting the spotlight on Myanmar will serve as further incentive for reform.
But Myanmar still has a long way to go. Last week, smoke and flames rose once again from the twisted wreckage of charred Muslim homes and mosques ransacked by machete-wielding Buddhist mobs, this time in Thandwe in western Rakhine state, where five people were killed — one of them a 94-year-old Muslim woman who was too frail to flee.
"From a human rights perspective, the chairmanship is an honor the government hasn't earned," said Matthew Smith, a Myanmar expert who directs the advocacy group Fortify Rights.
"More than 250,000 people have been forcibly displaced from their homes in the last two years, wartime abuses continue, and there is an ongoing campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' of Muslim communities, creating a regional refugee crisis," he said. "None of that spells regional leadership."
Myanmar will be officially appointed head of ASEAN, which aims to promote regional economic development and cooperation, in a handover ceremony in Brunei on Thursday, but it will not take up its duties until Jan. 1.
From time to time, ASEAN had criticized Myanmar, seeing its former heavy-handed military regime as a roadblock to regional progress. But in 1997, when the country formerly known as Burma won admission to ASEAN despite strong opposition from Western nations, the regional bloc cited its intention to encourage positive change.
Myanmar changed little, however, until 2011, when the long-ruling military junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government led by retired army officers. Few expected a transformation, but President Thein Sein's government surprised the world with a wave of reforms that have liberalized the economic and politics.
Aung San Suu Kyi — the longtime opposition leader who spent most of the last two decades as a prisoner in her own home — is now an elected lawmaker. Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed. A draconian system of media censorship has been abolished. And the government has signed cease-fire deals with most rebel groups.
But much remains to be done. Anti-Muslim violence that began in June 2012 has spread nationwide, displacing nearly 150,000 people with no end in sight. And in the north, fighting between the army and ethnic Kachin rebels grinds on, with more than 100,000 driven from their homes.
ASEAN's sentiment, meanwhile, remains largely the same — it says it is trying to encourage more reform.
"We acknowledge that issues remain ... and we believe that they are working on them to the best of their ability," Philippine presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said Wednesday in Brunei. "But we also need to recognize the dramatic changes that have taken place in that country and the reforms that have been undertaken by the president of Myanmar."
"The best thing that the international community can do at this point is to encourage them to continue to move in this direction, so we support Myanmar is taking over as chair," he said.
ASEAN has generally maintained a policy of non-interference in members' internal matters, but Caradang said leaders are expected to quietly push Myanmar on the sidelines to take more concrete steps to resolve the violence.
Speaking to a young woman from Myanmar at an ASEAN young leaders' meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: "What is happening in Myanmar is exciting, but incomplete. We have to see the political transformation continue and our hope is that democracy will continue to evolve."
Tin Oo, a senior leader of Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy party agreed, saying Myanmar has gradually changed. "It is time they become chairman of ASEAN, even though they have difficulties," he said of the government.
In Cambodia, which labors under its own delicate balance of democracy and authoritarianism, at least one analyst thinks the ASEAN leadership role will drive further reforms in Myanmar. Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that while Myanmar's bureaucracy remains old and inefficient, "the spotlight is probably going to force Burma to reform a bit more."
But Yan Myo, a Yangon-based political analyst, said that since Myanmar's "leaders cannot yet solve their own domestic problems ... it is questionable how (they) can take the regional leadership role."
Myanmar has responded to international concerns so far in at least making the right gestures over human rights, such as freeing political prisoners before Thein Sein makes high-profile visits abroad, said Panitan Wattanayagorn, an international relations specialist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"But now that the ASEAN leadership has fallen into their laps," he said, "they may think they don't have to do more."
Pitman reported from Bangkok. Associated Press writers Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar, Grant Peck in Bangkok, and Eileen Ng in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, also contributed to this report.