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20 July 2009

Asean Meetings: Agenda filled with security, rights issues

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Asian foreign ministers met on Sunday ahead of the continent's biggest security dialogue, under the shadow of the Jakarta bomb attacks and North Korea's nuclear programme, reported AFP.

A proposed regional rights body that critics say will lack teeth to tackle violators such as Myanmar was also on the agenda at days of talks culminating in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Regional Forum.

The 27-member forum, which includes Asian nations, the EU and the United States, meets on the resort isle of Phuket on Thursday with a debut appearance from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan as well as tensions between Thailand and Cambodia over an ancient temple on their border are also on the long list of security problems facing Asia.

But Friday's twin suicide bombings at hotels in the Indonesian capital, which police said left nine people dead have unexpectedly thrown the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) back into the spotlight.

Indonesian police on Sunday confirmed JI had carried out the attack, which has shattered years of calm in Asean's most populous member nation. The group was also responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, which left more than 200 dead.

"It remains for all of us to work vigorously in future to prevent terrorist acts," Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said after meeting counterparts from the 10-member Asean in Phuket on Sunday ahead of the main forum.

"At the beginning of our meeting, all of us expressed condolences to the Indonesian government and people and especially to the bereaved families," Kasit said.

Kasit meanwhile defended an unprecedented new regional rights body as ministers prepared to endorse its terms of reference on Monday, despite admitting that it would involve compromises on military-ruled Myanmar.

Myanmar, Asean's most troublesome member since joining the bloc in 1997, has stirred up fresh international outrage by putting democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on trial over an incident in which an American swam to her lakeside house.

Leaders of the bloc are set to launch the rights watchdog in October but critics say it will be powerless to investigate or punish abuses such as those by Myanmar but also by communist Vietnam and Laos.

"It is important to make this human rights body credible, but at the same time take into account the real situation in Asean member countries," Kasit said.

Shortly before he spoke, Myanmar authorities detained around 20 members of Aung San Suu Kyi's party as they headed back from events to mark the anniversary of her father's death in 1947.

Kasit said Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win had later briefed his counterparts on the recent visit of UN chief Ban Ki-moon, during which the junta refused to allow Ban to see Aung San Suu Kyi.

Nyan Win also told them about the junta's preparations for elections in 2010, including election law and the establishment of an election commission, he said.

Meanwhile there were still hopes that North Korea's foreign minister could attend the meeting to discuss the communist state's nuclear programme, after he earlier said he would send a roving ambassador instead, Kasit said.

US State Department officials said they expected the showdown over North Korea's nuclear and missile tests and political repression in Myanmar to be among the leading topics that Clinton will discuss when she arrives.

"We talked about the situation on the Korean peninsula. We hope that the DPRK government would send the foreign minister to attend. We are waiting for the final decision," he said.

Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said he hoped this week's forum could help restart stalled six-nation talks on nuclear disarmament after Pyonyang's recent defiant nuclear test and missile launches.

The ARF groups all six parties - the US, Russia, China, Japan and North and South Korea - along with Asean, the European Union, Australia, Canada, India, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, New Guinea, Timor Leste, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Thousands of troops and police threw a ring of steel around Phuket to prevent a repeat of anti-government protests which derailed a key Asian summit in the coastal city of Pattaya in April.




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