The EU and Asean spent two hours on the subject in Singapore yesterday, in what the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, called "a very good exchange of views on the worrying and disturbing situation in that country and the need to see the progress towards democratic institutions and a return to civilian government in Burma". But, despite the increasing repressiveness of the country's State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc), the seven Asean countries, including Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, seem determined to admit Burma, probably this summer.
The dispute came to a head last June when Rangoon was admitted as an observer member, shortly before a meeting in Jakarta of the Asean Regional Forum, which includes the United States, Japan, and the European Commission. Ever since 1990, when the Slorc ignored the results of an election won by the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma has been regarded as a pariah state in many Western capitals, and the presence of Burma's Foreign Minister at the Jakarta conference caused outrage among European diplomats. "It's as if the EU took on Libya as a member," said one at the time.
At an Asean meeting in November the argument was won by Malaysia and Indonesia, who insist that only through "positive engagement" can Rangoon be integrated into the international community.
Burma is expected to be formally admitted, along with Laos and Cambodia, in Kuala Lumpur, on the 30th anniversary of Asean's foundation in June.