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 26 Feb 2009

Asean Summit:
Human rights issues on the back burner

The prickly issue of human rights in Myanmar will take a back seat to the global financial meltdown as leaders of cash-strapped Southeast Asian countries meet this weekend for an annual summit, reported the Associated Press.

Ducking the spotlight will be a relief for Myanmar's military junta, which has been busy locking up dissidents and has ignored UN demands to free its highest-profile political prisoner, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

For the rest of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the financial crisis offers an opportunity to avoid the perennial dilemma of confronting its most troublesome member and other sensitive topics.

Thailand, which currently holds Asean's rotating chairmanship and is hosting the summit, is billing the meeting as a turning point for the bloc that has long been criticized as a talk shop that forges agreements by consensus while steering clear of confrontation.

It is the first time leaders will meet since the group signed a landmark charter in December. The document made Asean a legal entity and moves it a step closer toward the goal of establishing a single market by 2015 and becoming a European Union-like community.

"This summit will mark a new chapter for Asean," Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said recently. "We want to make Asean a more rule-based and effective organisation according to the charter."

But the run-up to the summit has showcased some of the disarray of Asean, which groups more than 500 million people and includes fledgling democracies, a monarchy, a military dictatorship and two communist regimes.

Originally scheduled for December in Bangkok, the summit was postponed because of political upheaval in Thailand. Abhisit, who came to power that month on the back of the unrest, shifted the venue to Cha-am, a beach resort 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of the capital, to escape lingering protests in Bangkok.

Senior officials start meeting Thursday ahead of the weekend leaders' summit. Asean's 10 members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has already said this weekend's summit will be "a waste of time," since China, Japan and South Korea are unable to attend. Their absence means Asean can't lobby Asia's economic powers for financial aid.

Philippine diplomats also say their interest in the summit has "really waned" without the three East Asian powers attending.

Southeast Asian countries are struggling to revive their export-driven economies amid rising unemployment and fears of recession. The economies of Thailand and Singapore have already shrunk while Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are grappling with rapidly slowing growth.




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