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8 April 2010

Thai unrest, Myanmar elections overshadow Asean summit

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Unrest in Thailand and controversy over Myanmar's elections are likely to overshadow a summit of 10 Southeast Asian leaders who had intended to focus on economic matters, the Associated Press reported.

The summit was set to open in Hanoi on Thursday, one day after Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in the face of escalating anti-government protests. At the last minute, he canceled his participation in the 16th annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"The situation in Bangkok is worrying, and it's a somber backdrop to our discussions," Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo said. "I really hope that the situation there will not lead to violence."

Leaders from the 10 Asean nations were expected to focus on economic integration and climate change.

Some members are likely to press privately for a statement urging Myanmar's military junta to modify new laws governing the elections, which the largest opposition group plans to boycott.

Myanmar's junta plans to call elections sometime this year, but under the election laws, detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is forbidden from participating.

Last week, members of her party, the National League for Democracy, announced they would not participate in the polls, the first in 20 years.

"It's disappointing that, because of the way the election laws have been crafted, it's not possible for the NLD to participate in the elections," Yeo said, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the meeting Thursday morning.

However, he said, it was unlikely that the group would strongly criticize Myanmar's junta.

"We are not in a position to punish Myanmar," Yeo said. "If China and India remain engaged with Myanmar, then we have to."

ASEAN has a tradition of noninterference in its members' political affairs, so a strong public rebuke is unlikely. Political consensus is also difficult to reach among the 10 nations, which include a military junta, communist states and democracies.

The leaders also plan to issue a statement about climate change, but the focus is likely to be on economics, said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at the Australian National Defence Force Academy.

Asean hopes to advance its goals of forming a European-style economic community by 2015 and promoting development across the region.


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