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Global economic crisis hangs over ASEAN summit

(Reuters) / 28 February 2009

HUA HIN, Thailand - Southeast Asian leaders gathered for their annual summit on Saturday, aiming to enact plans to create a single EU-style community in the years ahead, while dealing with a deepening global economic crisis.

While the Association of South East Asian Nations has made progress on implementing a landmark charter, foreign ministers failed to agree on a new human rights body, putting the brakes on plans for political integration of the 10-member bloc.

“We may not be able to make everyone happy or to get everybody on board,” Vitavas Srivihok, Thailand’s top ASEAN official, told Reuters. “We would like to get the wheels to start moving, although they might be slow at first.”

But the main focus of the summit is to come up with a coordinated response to the the global economic crisis which raises the spectre of rising unemployment in the mostly impoverished region whose economies rely heavily on exports.

Top officials have offered homilies against signs of creeping protectionism in world trade, even as they defend their own buy-local campaigns as not inconsistent with world trade rules.

ASEAN Economic ministers did chalk up a victory for free trade on Friday by securing a Free Trade Agreement with New Zealand and Australia.

The free trade area covers 12 countries with a combined population of more than 600 million people and GDP of more than $2 trillion. Officials hope the pact will come into play by the end of this year.

Slow process

But ironing out details of the charter could take some time in a diverse region whose governments range from Myanmar’s military junta and Brunei’s absolute monarchy to the young democracies of Indonesia and the Philippines.

Plans for leaders to meet with delegates from civil society and non-governmental organisations suffered a setback on Saturday when Cambodia and Myanmar refused to recognise groups representing their countries.

Member nations signed the charter in 2007 to promote democracy, regional security, alleviate poverty, fight crime and create a single, competitive market with free flow of capital.

Despite frequent criticism of ASEAN’s non-intervention policy and its lack of action on human rights, its secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan insisted ASEAN was committed to moving forward.

“A new ASEAN means an ASEAN living under the rules of law among ourselves,” Surin told reporters on Friday.

“We will be very much compliant to our commitments that we make along the way, in every form, document and every agreement.”

ASEAN comprises Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and the Philippines.


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