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 November 21, 2007

Asean summit opens with Myanmar row

SINGAPORE: Southeast Asian leaders opened annual talks Tuesday in an atmosphere poisoned by Myanmar, after the military junta undermined the bloc’s credibility by excluding a United Nations envoy from the summit.
President Gloria Arroyo met separately with the premier of Myanmar, as she called for the release of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been under house arrest for 18 years.
But Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a plea for the crisis in Myanmar not to completely overshadow the summit, which was supposed to focus on a new charter for the 10-member bloc and plans for economic integration.

“Asean leaders will strive to prevent the Myanmar issue from obstructing our efforts to deepen integration and build an Asean community,” the summit host said in an opening address.
But observers said the credibility of the Association of South?east Asian Nations (Asean) had been shattered by Monday’s abrupt cancellation of UN special envoy Ibra?him Gambari’s plan?ned briefing to its leaders.
“Certainly, this is a victory for Myan?mar,” said Hiro Katsumata from the S. Rajarat?nam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“What is lost is the reputation of the association,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Singapore had invited Gambari to brief the leaders of 16 Asian countries including China and Japan on the results of his two visits to Myanmar since the regime’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September.
But during heated talks at dinner Monday, Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein objected to the event that other Southeast Asian leaders also opposed on the grounds it had been taken outside the Asean forum.
A Southeast Asian diplomat said that at one point, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired Army general, stood up and raised his voice, asking how Asean had come to such a point of discord.
Thein Sein had been expected to face a grilling over the regime’s bloody campaign to suppress dissent, which left 15 dead. But instead he walked away with a victory as his neighbors quickly caved in.
Thein Sein “made clear that the situation in Myanmar was a domestic Myanmar thing, and that Myanmar was fully capable of handling the situation by itself,” Lee said.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar insisted the move should not be “considered a slap to the UN” and that Gambari was welcome to meet with leaders individually.
Gambari was in Singapore Tuesday but was not present at the Shangri-La hotel, the main summit venue, where a noticeable air of gloom hung over the delegates as they filed in.
The United States said here that Asean’s credibility was at stake over its handling of Myanmar, which the bloc has refused to punish despite its refusal to shift to democracy or release Suu Kyi.
The Myanmar issue has exposed splits within the grouping, a disparate collection of young democracies as well as socialist regimes, monarchies and authoritarian states.
A charter to be signed at this 40th anniversary summit, which commits member states to notions of democracy and human rights, had to be watered down before all 10 members agreed to sign.
On Monday, President Arroyo warned the Philippines would not ratify the charter unless Suu Kyi is released—in a major challenge to the bloc’s consensus-based approach.
“We are doing it on our own,” an Arroyo aide told Agence France-Presse. “I think we are the first country to have asked.”
There were also divisions among Asean’s six dialogue partners—Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, who with Asean collectively make up the East Asia Summit (EAS), which convenes here today.
“China’s position is that it is inappropriate for Gambari to visit the EAS. Gambari should brief only the United Nations,” a Southeast Asian foreign ministry official said.
Japanese Foreign Minister Masa?hi?ko Komura disagreed, saying: “I personally believe envoy Gambari should have been given a chance to explain the situation during these talks.”
Asean leaders on Tuesday will also approve a blueprint for a common market embracing the region’s nearly 570 million people by 2015—a target which faces significant hurdles.
Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myan?mar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
--With The Manila Times

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