For the second year running, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have failed to take Myanmar to task formally for its regressive steps on the road to democracy. This is despite the transparent frustration of many member countries at the decision to extend house arrest for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other signs that the hardliners have tightened their grip on power. This year's outcome, much like last year's, will only serve to highlight how the organisation's dysfunctional way of dealing with politics in its own backyard has changed so little, even as progress is being made on economic integration within Asean and the entire Asian region. It could well limit how seriously Asean is taken, and blow up into a full-scale embarrassment by the time Myanmar takes over leadership of the bloc in just over a year's time. Something needs to be done before then - and it has to be more than just polite tete-a-tetes asking the generals to be nicer to the junta's political opponents. A statement prepared for inclusion in the Vientiane summit's final declaration was reportedly scotched because of Thai opposition. Within Asean, nothing happens without consensus and one objection is enough to stall a proposal. The arrangement provides for maximum harmony but has stalled progress on many fronts, not just in political matters. One article in Malaysia's New Straits Times hailed the approach as 'Asean's peculiar diplomacy of letting everyone win'. Very peculiar indeed, as the reluctance to embarrass a member could well lead to embarrassment for the bloc as a whole. At last year's meeting, nothing was said about the continued marginalisation of Ms Suu Kyi and her party, which won the country's last democratic election but was never allowed to take office. Instead, the collective statement praised the 'positive developments' found in Myanmar's promise to hold a constitutional convention. The member countries also deemed sanctions unhelpful. Afterwards Thailand, one of Myanmar's largest trading partners, was asked to exert its influence, to little visible effect. It is true that a strong Asean statement will not by itself produce results in Myanmar, but it would be a start. Effective action on Myanmar will likely need to eventually include China, another large trading partner as well as a source of arms, aid and diplomatic support. Then there is India, which shares a land border and friendly relations with Myanmar - so friendly it recently went ahead with a plan to host a top-level meeting just after the generals consolidated power. The fact that both these large regional powers are being drawn into Asean's orbit through trade deals might also be exploited to sharpen the diplomatic focus on attaining some progress in Myanmar. It is ironic that Asean's political stagnation continues even as events are accelerating on the economic integration front. This year's meeting saw the signing of an agreement with China. When completed by 2010, the resulting free-trade zone would be the world's largest. Similar deals are in progress with Japan and South Korea. The prospects are growing that the separate agreements will be used as building blocks for the formal establishment of an 'Asean plus three' zone encompassing all of East Asia. If this is accomplished, the result could be nothing less than the world's most powerful trading bloc and a diplomatically significant grouping capable of counterbalancing American influence in the region. But if Asean and the emerging 'Asean plus three' want to achieve both objectives, they will have to develop a willingness to criticise member countries when they misbehave. And they should do it soon, as there is potential for much more embarrassment when Myanmar takes over the Asean leadership. What kind of message will the world get when the hosts of the region's most important meetings are unelected generals who silence their opposition by throwing them behind locked doors?