The existence of a seven-step 'road map to democracy' has proven to be handy for Myanmar's military rulers. The vague plan promises the drafting of a new constitution and the staging of free elections at some point in the future. The generals repeatedly point to the plan whenever criticism arises of their heavy-handed, undemocratic rule. But behind the smokescreen of an ongoing constitutional convention and other reforms yet to come, no real progress has been made. As the date for Myanmar to take over the leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations approaches, the grouping will face a choice: either allow the repressive regime to take over the chair next summer and face international ostracism or force the country to make meaningful changes. Asean has had little appetite for the latter course in the past, preferring instead to extend economic aid and diplomatic face while quietly pushing for reform - but only behind closed doors. If the failure of this constructive engagement strategy is apparent now, it will become even starker next year. The signs of a shift in Asean's attitude are growing. Unfortunately, most of the pressure is coming from the region's legislatures, while the top leadership continues to waver. Legislators from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries are beginning to put forward motions censuring Myanmar and calling for the chairmanship to be withheld. The presidents and prime ministers of the Asean bloc, however, are not united behind these calls. And even when Asian state leaders do chide Yangon's rulers in public, they still send mixed messages. Within a body where nothing gets done without consensus, these varying attitudes are a recipe for more inaction. Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong may have spoken of regional interdependence and Myanmar's potential to tarnish Asean's image during his recent trip, but he also flagged a higher level of co-operation and the possibility of more air links. Filipino lawmakers may be some of the junta's more outspoken critics, but that does not prevent Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from rolling out the red carpet when Myanmar's generals come to visit. Hopes for a significant shift on this issue, then, have to rest with the probability that more Asean members will realise just how embarrassing and impractical it would be for Myanmar to hold the chairmanship. A western-world boycott of all Asean activities is a credible possibility. Yangon is unlikely to make progress in drawing the democracies of New Zealand and Australia into the Asean orbit. Progress towards an East Asia Summit, which would include Japan, China and South Korea, could also stall. And continuing efforts to coax reforms out of the Myanmar regime would similarly become impossible. There are gestures Myanmar could make between now and next year that would make its hosting of Asean meetings more palatable. These include releasing 1,300 political prisoners and ending the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won the last open election in 1990. There could be an early resumption of the constitutional convention, adjourned from this week until at least November - but with meaningfully broad participation. Lastly, Yangon could allow the United Nations human rights envoy to see firsthand what conditions are in the country - which he has not been able to do. These are steps the generals will not take so long as Asean nations continue to give them support. There are small but encouraging signs of a growing belief inside the region that Myanmar's pariah-state status must mean pariah-state treatment. Gentle criticism has not had an effect. Perhaps a bona fide threat to withhold the Asean chairmanship will.