Senior Asean officials gathering in Jakarta ahead of a leadership summit at the weekend said Myanmar had sought the chair of the 10-nation bloc in 2014, when communist Laos was due to take the job.
“Myanmar feels that this is it, this is their chance,” an ASEAN diplomatic source told AFP on the sidelines of the discussions.
Myanmar relinquished the chance to chair Asean in 2006 due to international pressure for democratic reforms, but only on the condition that it could ask to lead the group at any time if it felt it was ready, officials said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said giving the chair to Myanmar – a pariah state in the democratic world and a notorious human rights abuser – would be an embarrassment for a group that is already struggling with credibility issues.
“Rewarding Myanmar with Asean’s chairmanship after it staged sham elections and still holds 2,000 political prisoners would be an embarrassment for the region,” HRW Asia deputy director Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
“ASEAN leaders need to decide if they will let Myanmar demote ASEAN to the laughing stock of intergovernmental forums.”
Myanmar President Thein Sein has already arrived in Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, to attend the two-day summit starting Saturday.
He met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Thursday on what is his first trip abroad as president since he was sworn in on March 30.
Myanmar is a constant source of tension and embarrassment for ASEAN's more democratic states, trumping other problem members such as communist Vietnam and Laos, which have significant human rights issues of their own.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November shortly after an election, Myanmar's first in 20 years, that led to the handover of power from the military to a nominally civilian government.
Her release was welcomed worldwide, but Western governments who impose sanctions on Myanmar have urged the new government to do more to demonstrate its commitment to human rights.
Thein Sein, who was prime minister under the now-disbanded junta headed by former leader General Than Shwe, is one of a group of generals who shed their army uniforms to successfully stand in the November poll.
ASEAN has urged the United States to lift sanctions in the wake of the election, but Washington says "severe" abuses including killings, rapes and forced labour continue.
As chair of ASEAN, Myanmar would be required to speak on behalf of the bloc and host scores of meetings including the East Asia Summit which includes the United States.
US approval is not needed for Myanmar to chair ASEAN, but Washington could use its considerable influence to press Myanmar for reforms before assuming the chair, diplomats said.
“ASEAN should define a baseline ASEAN criteria for Burma to meet before it assumes the chairmanship. These would be ASEAN norms that the regional grouping expects from its members in good standing,” Washington-based Southeast Asia analyst Ernest Bower told AFP, using the country’s alternative name.
The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus called on regional leaders to reject Myanmar’s application unless it made “real democratic and human rights reforms”.
“The oppression in Myanmar constitutes a black stain on the credibility of ASEAN and will be an obstacle to efforts by ASEAN to build an ASEAN Community by 2015,” the regional MPs said in a statement.