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Political progress elusive in Hanoi

AS the 16th ASEAN Summit came to a close in Hanoi on Friday, regional leaders announced a host of new economic agreements while cautiously acknowledging the political obstacles facing the 10-member bloc as it seeks to raise its profile on the international stage.

At the conclusion of the summit, heads of state from each member country issued joint declarations on climate change and the economic recovery.

The statement on economics pledged coordinated action both in adapting to newly established free-trade agreements and in adjusting expansionary policies enacted during the economic crisis; the climate statement, meanwhile, called for a binding global emissions agreement and increased adaptability funding for a region that is one of the world’s most vulnerable to rising sea levels and unpredictable weather patterns.

The leaders also proposed the establishment of an ASEAN infrastructure fund to support the construction of transport and communications links in the region and suggested that the grouping advocate for a permanent position at global G-20 summits.

Although the bloc’s rhetoric remained hopeful, a new crisis in Thailand and perennial problems in Myanmar served as a reminder of the political divisions that threaten ASEAN’s vision of regional cohesion.

ASEAN foreign ministers took a step towards addressing political disagreements among members by framing a dispute-resolution mechanism that will be finalised at a meeting in July.

Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong called the protocol “a very good thing for ASEAN”, though he said Cambodia would be unlikely to utilise it in its ongoing border dispute with Thailand. “I don’t think so – it’s a problem apart,” Hor Namhong said.

Escalating antigovernment protests in Bangkok forced Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to cancel his trip to Hanoi and have Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya represent him instead. Though ASEAN delegates said on the sidelines of the summit that they hoped for a quick and peaceful resolution to the conflict in Thailand, they said it had not been discussed in official meetings.

Kasit told reporters on Friday that the Red Shirts would be dispersed peacefully, though his comments were soon overtaken by events as clashes erupted between security forces and protesters, killing 19 people and injuring over 800 as of Saturday.

Bucking ASEAN’s traditional policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of its members, Hor Namhong wrote Saturday to his fellow foreign ministers in the grouping, calling on them to convene a special summit to defuse the situation.

It was not clear on Sunday whether such action would be taken, but ASEAN leaders did weigh in on the situation in Myanmar, where laws enacted last month are set to prevent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from taking part later this year in the country’s first elections in two decades.

In a statement issued at the conclusion of the summit on Friday, the leaders said Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein had briefed them on preparations for the upcoming polls.

“We underscored the importance of national reconciliation in Myanmar and the holding of the general election in a free, fair, and inclusive manner, thus contributing to Myanmar’s stability and development,” the statement read.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the current chairman of ASEAN and himself the leader of a one-party state, said regional countries were ready to offer aid in staging fair and credible elections in Myanmar.

“The election should be fair, democratic, with the participation of all parties, and this will help stabilise the country and focus resources for development,” Nguyen said.

Though the group’s stated goal is to establish European Union-style unity in economic and foreign policy by 2015, ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan acknowledged that gaps in political development among regional governments will not be resolved immediately.

“It has to move incrementally – the diversity and difference of governance, difference of norms and values among the member states.... I think we have to be realistic on the terrain that is very, very different and very diverse,” he said.



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