Myanmar tops agenda as ASEAN meets

19 Nov 07

Southeast Asian leaders gathered Sunday for their annual summit with the bloc’s credibility at stake as they grapple with Myanmar, which has earned global scorn for its bloody crackdown on dissent.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is under pressure to rein in their most troublesome member, whose deadly suppression of pro-democracy protests has cast a shadow over ASEAN’s 40th anniversary summit.

Ministers and officials from across the region held meetings under tight security ahead of Tuesday’s formal summit, at which leaders are to sign a landmark charter and a blueprint for the creation of a free trade zone by 2015.

But Myanmar has grabbed the international spotlight and many analysts say the charter – meant to promote human rights and democracy – is meaningless if Myanmar cannot be held accountable for its alleged widespread abuses.

“If the charter is signed, what happens after that? Will they continue to string us along as they have done in the past 10 years?” Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo told reporters Sunday upon his arrival in Singapore.

“That charter is good, but once you sign it, you must implement what is there. That’s what we are asking, if Myanmar will implement it.”

Leaders will sit down with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein for their first gathering since September’s unrest in the isolated military-run state, which claimed at least 15 lives.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said the leaders would have “critical” talks at an informal dinner on Monday, at which Thein Sein would be asked to explain the junta’s brutal response to the mass protests.

UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who has visited Myanmar twice since then, will Wednesday brief ASEAN leaders and their counterparts from six other Asian nations including China and India, two of the junta’s key allies.

“If we can arrive at a common position, that will be very helpful for the process of national reconciliation in Myanmar — it will mean that we all lined up behind Ibrahim Gambari,” Yeo said.

One senior Southeast Asian official said the junta was mounting a last-minute campaign to block the UN envoy’s briefing, but Romulo said: “We support Singapore in wanting Mr Gambari to report to the EAS.”

ASEAN issued a strong rebuke to Myanmar in September, expressing its “revulsion” at the use of force.

However, the bloc says its controversial policy of engaging with the junta is the only way forward, and has rejected calls to slap sanctions on the ruling generals, as the United States and the European Union have done.

“Economic sanctions are not good and would not make the leaders of Myanmar die,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told an ASEAN business forum Sunday, calling such measures “counter-productive”.

ASEAN secretary general Ong Keng Yong also rejected a US Senate resolution calling for Myanmar to be suspended from the group, saying the region would make its own decisions and that confrontation was not the answer.

Singapore has tightened tough laws on public protests but a group of 10 students released red balloons in the air to conclude a human rights forum Sunday, calling for the release of Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The city-state, known as one of the safest places in the world, has closed streets, erected barricades and deployed thousands of police officers in an intense security campaign.

The paramilitary Gurkha Contingent stood guard Sunday with submachine guns and shotguns in the driveway of the Shangri-La hotel, the main summit venue.

Beyond the situation in Myanmar, leaders will approve a blueprint for a common market embracing the region’s nearly 570 million people by 2015 – a target which faces significant hurdles.

They will also sign a charter aimed at transforming the bloc, which was originally formed as an anti-communist alliance at the height of the Cold War, into a rules-based legal entity like the European Union.

The charter says one of the bloc’s purposes is to “promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” but critics say the document is inadequate and has no clear mechanism for ASEAN to take action against Myanmar

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