Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Asean Financial Gloom to Trump Rights Issues

The Irrawaddy News

BANGKOK — The prickly issue of human rights in Burma will take a back seat to the global financial meltdown as leaders of cash-strapped Southeast Asian countries meet this weekend for an annual summit.

Ducking the spotlight will be a relief for Burma's military junta, which has been busy locking up dissidents and has ignored UN demands to free its highest-profile political prisoner, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

For the rest of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the financial crisis offers an opportunity to avoid the perennial dilemma of confronting its most troublesome member and other sensitive topics.

Thailand, which currently holds Asean's rotating chairmanship and is hosting the summit, bills the meeting as a turning point for the bloc that has long been criticized as a talk shop that forges agreements by consensus and steers away from confrontation.

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.

"This summit will mark a new chapter for Asean," Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said recently. "We want to make Asean a more rule-based and effective organization according to the charter."

But the run-up to the summit has showcased some of the disarray in Asean, which groups more than 500 million people and includes fledgling democracies, a monarchy, a military dictatorship and two communist regimes.

Originally scheduled for December in Bangkok, the summit was postponed because of political upheaval in Thailand. Abhisit, who came to power that month on the back of protests, shifted the venue to the beach resort Hua Hin, 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of the capital, to escape lingering protests in Bangkok.

Senior officials start meeting on February 26 ahead of the weekend leaders' summit. Asean's 10 members include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

In recent years, Asean summits have been followed by the so-called East Asia Summit, which includes the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. But Beijing couldn't make the new Feb meeting, forcing Thailand to call a second summit in April.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has decried the back-to-back meetings as "a waste of time," saying the absence this weekend of China, Japan and South Korea means Asean can't lobby Asia's economic powers for financial aid. The sharp-tongued Hun Sen has been particularly critical of Thailand since a border dispute last year sparked deadly clashes and brief concerns of war between the neighbors.

Philippine diplomats also say their interest in the summit has "really waned" without the three East Asian powers attending.

Southeast Asian countries are struggling to revive their export-driven economies amid rising employment and fears of recession. The economies of Thailand and Singapore have already shrunk while Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are grappling with rapidly slowing growth.

Asian finance ministers agreed last weekend to form a $120 billion pool of foreign-exchange reserves to protect falling currencies. Asean members will provide 20% of funding, with 80% from China, Japan and South Korea.

Among the key documents to be signed at the meeting are a free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand and a roadmap for turning Asean into an EU-style bloc by 2015, as outlined by the new charter.

One of the charter's key pledges is to set up a regional human rights body, though critics doubt that members like Burma would allow it to have much clout.

Meanwhile, specific human rights issues—including the plight of the stateless Rohingya boat people who flee Burma and have recently washed up on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia—will be discussed on the sidelines but not as part of the summit's formal agenda.

Burma has come under vocal criticism by the United Nations for jailing hundreds of dissidents ahead of general elections promised for 2010—the first in 20 years. The junta holds more than 2,100 political detainees, including pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi. The 63-year-old Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention without trial.

But Asean has no intention of formally scolding Burma, Vitavas Srivihok, the director-general the Thai Foreign Ministry's Asean department told reporters earlier this week.

"We don't have any specific meetings regarding Myanmar (Burma) because it is sensitive," he said, "and we don't want to single out any country."

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