CHA-AM, Thailand — Southeast Asian officials on Friday hailed the creation of a regional human rights body as a historic first step toward confronting abuses in the region, but the body will lack the power to investigate or punish violators of human rights like military-ruled Myanmar.

A confidential document obtained by The Associated Press says the rights body, which the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations hopes to form later this year, would “promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms” in the region but will abide by the bloc’s bedrock policy of not interfering in members internal affairs.

The document, which outlines the proposed powers of the future rights body, falls short of key demands voiced by international human rights groups, which say the body will have limited effectiveness unless it can impose sanctions or expel countries that violate the rights of their own citizens.

The document was being presented behind closed-doors to ASEAN foreign ministers gathered at a coastal resort in Thailand ahead of an annual leaders summit this weekend. It is a first draft for the body’s proposed powers, with a final draft scheduled for completion in July.

The delegates are expected to devote most of their time to grappling with how the region can best cope with the global economic crisis. Although reform in Myanmar may be discussed on the sidelines of the conference, ASEAN traditionally shies away from criticism of its members.

Thailand, which currently holds ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship and is hosting the summit, bills the meeting as a turning point for the bloc.

It is the first time leaders will meet since the group signed a landmark charter in December. The document made ASEAN a legal entity and moves it a step closer toward the goal of establishing a single market by 2015 and becoming a European Union-like community.

One of the charter’s key pledges is to set up the regional human rights body. It is a landmark step and a highly controversial one for the Cold War-era bloc made up of fledgling democracies, authoritarian states, a military dictatorship and a monarchy.

“It is a historic first for Southeast Asia,” said Rosario Manalo, a senior diplomat representing the Philippines on the high-level panel that drafted the human rights body’s outline. “It marks the efforts of the region to move toward democracy.”

Officials describe the human rights body as a work in progress, saying its powers will evolve over time.

“Investigative powers should not be ruled out. We’ll take it step by step,” said Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand’s chairman of the drafting committee. “We have to go as far as we can but at the same time we have to be realistic.”

ASEAN’s 10 members — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — range from very poor to moderately rich.

The bloc that has long been criticized as a talk shop that forges agreements by consensus and steers away from confrontation — a factor that rights groups note will impede progress for the eventual human rights body.

According to the confidential document, the human rights body would follow the principles of “noninterference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states” and would “respect the right of every member state to (be) free from external interference, subversion and coercion.”

Any decisions taken by the group “shall be based on consultation and consensus,” the document says, effectively giving Myanmar and other violators veto power to block decisions.

International human rights groups have urged ASEAN leaders to press military-ruled Myanmar to end its rights abuses.

London-based Amnesty International said in a statement earlier this week that ASEAN “must be empowered to effectively address human rights in Myanmar.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a letter to ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, urged the summit to address “the dire human rights situation in Burma” and also improve treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the region.

The United States also blasted Myanmar’s junta for having “brutally suppressed dissent” through a campaign of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture.

In its annual report on the state of human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department on Wednesday criticized Myanmar’s junta for a range of abuses including the holding of more than 2,100 political prisoners, the continued detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and a brutal military campaign against ethnic minority groups. –The China Post