VOLUME 28 NO. 11 | MARCH 7- MARCH 13, 2009

ASEAN vows to stand firm against protectionism at summit

Last updated 3-5-09 at 2:59 p.m.

By Jocelyn Gecker

CHA-AM, Thailand (AP) — Southeast Asian leaders vowed Sunday to stand firm against protectionism and knit the diverse region into a European Union–style community by 2015 despite the global economic crisis.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in a statement released at the conclusion of its 14th annual summit, also called for “bold and urgent reform of the international financial system” that would take into account the needs of developing nations.

The summit delegates grappled with the region’s economic woes in the face of the global crisis but also aimed to highlight ASEAN’s championship of human rights. Instead, the issue suffered a setback when military-ruled Myanmar and Cambodia refused to talk to two pro-democracy activists.

The statement said that the leaders “reaffirmed their commitment to implement measures adopted in the ASEAN Economic Blueprint,” which calls for economic and some political and security integration by 2015, adding that the scope for regional cooperation must be expanded.

ASEAN’s goal of forming a single market mainly involves lifting trade barriers but not, at this point, adopting a common currency.

“They agreed to stand firm against protectionism and to refrain from introducing and raising new barriers,” the statement said.

Philippine Trade Secretary Peter Favila told The Associated Press that there was reluctance to push ahead with the goal to drop all trade barriers by 2015.

“Some ministers during unofficial discussions on the sidelines were saying that in the light of the global meltdown of course the local industries were affected,” he said. “But those are just sentiments. You know everybody has to follow the leaders’ instructions: Do it by 2015.”

Summit delegates also worked on the formation of a human rights body, but critics noted that the body, expected to begin functioning later this year, would lack power to punish violators such as Myanmar with expulsion or sanctions.

ASEAN has followed a policy of so-called “engagement” with Myanmar and noninterference in its internal affairs.

The Feb. 26 incident — when leaders from Cambodia and Myanmar threatened to walk out rather than meet pro-democracy activists invited to the talks — proved a ready-made example of ASEAN’s impotence in regulating human rights.

Calling it “unfortunate,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel noted that nobody has yet come forth with a strategy to reform Myanmar’s entrenched military regime.

“The sanctions-based approach hasn’t worked, the ASEAN engagement approach hasn’t worked,” Marciel said, reiterating recent comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The fact is there isn’t any obvious way ahead.”

“The military regime of Burma is the one who has been sabotaging ASEAN ever since they joined ASEAN in 1997,” said Debbie Stothard of the human rights group ALTSEAN–Burma.

The summit is the first since the group signed a landmark charter in December that made ASEAN a legal entity and moved it a step closer to its goal of integration. The charter also calls for adherence to basic freedoms and human rights.

“For Myanmar, we continue to hope that because of the ASEAN charter and the forthcoming ASEAN human rights body and among other things, they immediately release Aung San Suu Kyi,” Philippine Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo said in reference to Myanmar's pro-democracy leader, who has been in detention for most of the last 19 years.

ASEAN’s 10 members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

ASEAN, which encompasses a region of more than 500 million people, includes two communist regimes, two constitutional monarchies, a military dictatorship, and fledgling democracies. (end)


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