BANGKOK Myanmar's political reforms look "irreversible" and put the country on course to chair Southeast Asia's regional bloc, Indonesia's foreign minister said on Sunday after meeting with leaders of the reclusive, army-backed government.
The comments by Marty Natalegawa, whose country holds the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN bloc, are among the strongest yet suggesting Myanmar could chair the organisation in 2014, a step that would give long-coveted international recognition to one of Asia's most isolated states.
After a three-day visit, Natalegawa also urged the United States and European Union to ease sanctions following Myanmar's recent reforms, saying the embargoes have done more harm than good in the former British colony also known as Burma.
"I wish to believe and I get the sense that they are meant to be irreversible," Natalegawa said of the reforms. "I did not get any indication that the process will stop."
In a telephone interview with Reuters while in Singapore, in transit between Myanmar and Indonesia, he said Western sanctions missed their target and hurt ordinary people.
"For those who have implemented the sanctions for the purpose of making a political point, I think that political point has been made."
Myanmar has embarked on a series of reforms since the army nominally handed over power in March to civilians after the first elections in two decades, a process mocked at the time as a scripted sham to seal authoritarian rule behind a democratic facade.
Its overtures have since included calls for peace with ethnic minority groups, some tolerance of criticism, an easing of media controls, the release of about 200 political prisoners and more communication with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, freed last year from 15 years of house arrest.
President Thein Sein, a retired general but the first civilian head of state in half a century, also suspended a $3.6 billion, Chinese-led dam project on Sept. 30, a victory for supporters of Suu Kyi and a sign the country may yield to popular resentment over China's growing clout.
"We are at a quite a critical juncture here," Natalegawa said.
But allowing Myanmar to assume chairmanship of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations could provoke Western boycotts of some ASEAN meetings, an embarassment for the region of 600 million people at a time when it wants to be seen as a counterpoint to China's growing influence in Asia.
Washington has applauded the freeing of political prisoners but said it wants to see more reforms before considering lifting economic sanctions imposed in response to rights abuses by its former military leaders.
Derek Mitchell, special U.S. envoy for Myanmar, said on Oct. 17 that violence had continued against ethnic minorities in the rural north and east and there were "credible reports" of continuing human rights abuses against women and children.
Washington has also urged Myanmar to demonstrate greater transparency in its relationship with North Korea, underscoring U.S. concerns that Pyongyang could be seeking to sell Myanmar nuclear weapons technology.
Natalegawa said he urged Myanmar's leaders to release more political prisoners and take greater steps to reconcile with restive ethnic groups, and that he expected progress in these areas before the country assumes the chair of ASEAN.
"Most people with whom I have spoken expressed their belief that chairmanship of ASEAN by Myanmar in 2014 can provide further motivation and have a multiplier effect in terms of opening up the country even more," he said.
"In anticipation of that chairmanship in 2014, we can lock in progress that has been made until now and ensure that we can continue to build on that."
Diplomats say other factors play into Myanmar's desire to open up, like a need for technical assistance from the World Bank and other multilateral institutions which cut off ties years ago in response to rights abuses, including deadly crackdowns on pro-democracy uprisings.
There has been growing frustration in Southeast Asia over Myanmar's isolation as the region approaches a European Union-style Asian community in 2015.
Natalegawa also met with Suu Kyi, the first meeting by an ASEAN chair with the democracy leader.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)