Friday, October 1, 2010

Thai unrest, Myanmar overshadow ASEAN summit

Southeast Asian leaders open talks with their vision of building a regional community of nations overshadowed by major unrest in Thailand and Myanmar's widely criticised election plans.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was forced to cancel his trip to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Vietnam's capital Hanoi, after a dramatic escalation of anti-government protests in Bangkok.
The political drama in Thailand, where a state of emergency has been declared, is among the domestic issues within the 10-member ASEAN bloc which are distracting it from moving forward collectively, observers say.
Focused on economic issues for most of its existence, ASEAN in 2008 adopted a charter committing it to tighter links. The group aims to form by 2015 a community of 600 million people committed to democratic ideals and free trade.
"The building of the economic community will be one of the focal points during the summit," said Vietnam's assistant foreign minister Pham Quang Vinh.
Although the two-day meeting's slogan is "from vision to action", analysts say ASEAN is weighed down by wide development gaps within the region, entrenched domestic interests and the perennial distraction of Myanmar's failure to embrace democracy.
"I don't see any potential for their vision of an ASEAN community coming through by 2015," said Christopher Roberts, from the University of Canberra.
ASEAN's diverse membership ranges from Laos, one of Asia's poorest nations, to the Westernised city-state of Singapore, the absolute monarchy of Brunei and the vibrant democracy of Indonesia. Other members are Cambodia, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Thailand had until recent years been one of the region's strongest democracies, but Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo said Thursday that its recent turmoil was "worrying".
"(I) really hope that the situation there will not lead to violence, that good sense will prevail, and that the parties involved will continue to talk."
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that peace in each of ASEAN's members was essential to the group's ambitions for closer linkages.
"In the end, regional integration efforts, regional community building efforts must be anchored by national stability," he said.
But it is military-ruled Myanmar, accused of widespread rights abuses and preparing to hold its first elections in two decades later this year which has long been the bloc's most troublesome issue.
ASEAN members are divided on how to respond to Myanmar -- which is under European Union and United States sanctions -- but has always escape formal censure from the group which adheres to a principle of non-interference in members' internal affairs.
Analysts expect this time to be no different, but individual nations have taken a stronger stand on new election laws that effectively bar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from participating.
"We see this as a potentially extremely important election," Indonesia's Natalegawa said, urging Myanmar to live up to its commitments that the polls would be free and democratic.
Ahead of the summit, ASEAN took another step towards addressing
long-neglected human rights concerns with the inauguration of a commission to address the rights of women and children.
But economic issues will remain a focus of the leaders' talks.
In a draft statement seen by AFP, they call on regional governments to prepare to wind down economic stimulus measures brought in during the global financial crisis.
The leaders also say they want vital road, sea and air links completed more quickly to complement efforts to integrate regional economies, according to the draft of the statement, to be issued on Friday.
In a separate draft document, the leaders also call for a legally binding global pact on climate change.

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