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July 19, 2008

41st Asean Ministerial Meeting:
Asean ministers to tackle rising oil, food prices

Ministers from the 10-nation Asean are expected to hammer out possible solutions to rising oil and food prices amid warnings inflation could threaten political stability, AFP quoted the group’s officials as saying.

The problem, if left unchecked, could pose a challenge to the region's long-term aim of evolving into a European Union-style community where goods and services are freely traded across the region by 2015, they said.

At meetings to begin Sunday night, the ministers were to discuss "the growing challenge posed by rising oil and food prices, which pose a serious challenge to our people's welfare as well as our countries' continued economic development," according to a draft joint communique obtained by AFP.

The ministers were expected to push for more concerted cooperation "to ensure the efficient functioning of market forces," as well as come up with a longer-term solution to help members become more independent agriculturally, the draft said.

Foreign ministers from Asean countries Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are to meet for ministerial talks on Sunday.

Their discussions lead up to the region's main security meeting, with dialogue partners including the United States, on Thursday.

Prices of basic commodities across the region, including the staple rice, have risen steeply amid a supply crunch coupled with surging world oil prices.

Rice-importing countries such as the Philippines have particularly felt the pressure. President Gloria Arroyo recently ordered the military's intelligence service to check on groups that may exploit the issue and create "disturbances."

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, who chairs the meeting, said in an interview that there is interest in Asean to ensure rice is sold within the bloc first if there is a price spike or shortage.

Asean members Thailand and Vietnam are the world's top two rice exporters.

"There's no reason why, as Southeast Asia, we should be exporting our rice to the world when there are parts of the region that are short of rice," Yeo said in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires.

Asean secretary general Surin Pitsuwan told reporters during a visit to Manila recently that trade and finance ministers from the region have separately been working on a food security plan.

"(The ministers) have deliberated on this, and how to make this relevant because of the oil price," he said, noting that stocks of rice remain sound at the moment.

"The panic gear is over and the (price of) rice has gone down," he stressed. "The issue of food security is being revisited, recalibrated and analysed."

Another senior Southeast Asian official separately said Asean has agreed in principle to hold a food summit proposed by Indonesia for later this year.

More on Asean

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