(New York) - Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should reject Burma's request to chair the regional grouping in 2014 until the Burmese government takes genuine steps towards improving human rights, including the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today.

Burmese President Thein Sein will be attending the May 7-8 ASEAN summit in Jakarta, Indonesia on his first trip abroad as president since he was appointed in March 2011.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that Burma has failed to address concerns repeatedly raised by ASEAN leaders in past summits. Burma held sham elections in November 2010, with widespread restrictions on opposition parties, continued detention of political activists, and severe limits on basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. International election monitoring was not allowed. The main military-backed party swept the large majority of seats and now dominates the government.

"Rewarding Burma with ASEAN's chairmanship after it staged sham elections and still holds 2,000 political prisoners would be an embarrassment for the region," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "ASEAN leaders need to decide if they will let Burma demote ASEAN to the laughingstock of intergovernmental forums."

Since the election, Burma freed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi when her house detention order expired. But more than 2,000 activists, journalists, artists, aid workers, and members of political parties remain in Burma's squalid prisons, locked up for peaceful acts of expression.

ASEAN countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia have long called for the release of political prisoners in Burma.

Human Rights Watch said ASEAN member states should set clear benchmarks for Burma to earn the right to be chair, starting with the immediate release of all political prisoners in Burma, an inclusive dialogue with all political and ethnic parties, and cooperation with international efforts to promote accountability for human rights abuses.

"ASEAN leaders should not be fooled into thinking Aung San Suu Kyi's release means any progress on reform in Burma," said Pearson. "They should join Indonesia and the Philippines in calling for Burma to release all political prisoners."

Human Rights Watch also pressed ASEAN leaders to support growing calls for an international commission of inquiry into violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Burma. To date, 16 countries have publicly supported this call, though none from Asia. Burma's long-running internal armed conflict has led to numerous abuses against the civilian population. Since November 2010, Burmese army operations in eastern Burma's Karen State have caused tens of thousands of civilians to be displaced on both sides of the Burma-Thailand border. Civilians have been forced to serve as porters in areas containing anti-personnel landmines and improvised explosive devices. Large numbers of convicts from several prisons in Burma have also been forced to be porters for the army during military operations, including walking ahead of troops to trigger landmines in a practice known as "atrocity de-mining."

Human Rights Watch said an international inquiry in Burma would help protect the victims of serious abuses, advance accountability for international crimes, and generate broader respect for human rights.

"Establishing an international commission of inquiry would be a significant step to ending ongoing abuses and impunity in Burma," said Pearson. "If ASEAN leaders really care about long-term stability and democratic rule in Burma, then supporting a commission of inquiry is the place to start."