HANOI (Reuters) - Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbours have told the military government they are concerned over whether elections this year will be free and fair, a senior regional diplomat said on Tuesday.
The United States and Britain have said the general election would be illegitimate if the junta denies a role to thousands of political opponents now in prison. Southeast Asia's top regional bloc, which follows a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, has been less critical in public.
But Surin Pitsuwan, chairman of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which includes Myanmar, said concern was expressed at a regional security meeting in Hanoi.
"Myanmar, I think, got an earful last night," Surin told reporters on the sidelines of an ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting. "ASEAN is very much concerned."
That contrasts with upbeat comments expressed by Asian leaders in October after talks with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein during a summit of 16 Asia-Pacific nations.
Several Asian leaders emerged from those meetings saying they were given assurances by Myanmar its elections would be fair, and they expressed hope political prisoners would be freed, including detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the past 21 years in detention.
Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, while more than 2,000 political prisoners are behind bars.
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo told reporters the elections will help to open up Myanmar's economy.
"Once the generals take off the uniforms and they've got to win votes and kiss babies, and attend to local needs, the behaviour will change, the economy will gradually open up and this will be an important change in Myanmar," he said.
"We don't see a sharp break from what it is today but we see an important turning which will lead Myanmar into a different situation -- a constitutional government and one which will have a more open economy," he added.
Suu Kyi, daughter of the hero of the country's campaign for independence from British rule, was first detained in 1989, a year after she emerged as a champion of political reform during an unsuccessful student-led uprising for democracy.
Her party won a landslide election victory in 1990, only to be denied power by the military.
This year's election will be the first since then, but critics have already denounced it as a sham that will leave real power with the military. No date has been given for the poll but it is expected between October and December.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrives in Hanoi on Thursday for the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia's largest security dialogue, will raise U.S. doubts about election preparations in Myanmar, said a U.S. official in Washington.
Southeast Asia has been divided over the issue. Early last year some countries urged ASEAN to take a tougher stand with a public appeal calling on the junta to give Suu Kyi an amnesty.
But the proposal collapsed after several nations rejected it, saying it contravened the bloc's non-interference policy.
Writing by Jason Szep. Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; editing by Andrew Marshall and Alex Richardson