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 18 Jan 2008

Asean Integration: Domestic issues dampen single market drive

Southeast Asian nations will hold a series of meetings next week amid political and economic turmoil that may slow, though not derail, the region's lofty dream of creating a European Union-style community, reported Reuters.

Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will discuss the early ratification of a charter and establishment of a human rights body, whose 10-member nations includes juntas and kingdoms, democracies and communist states.

Asean will also hold security talks with Asia-Pacific powers including the United States, China, India, Australia, Japan and the two Koreas. North Korea will sign Asean’s non-aggression treaty, according to a draft declaration.

The 1976 treaty calls for signatories to renounce the use or threat of force and the peaceful settlement of conflicts. It also calls for non-interference in each other's internal affairs -- a clause that has often limited Asean’s ability to push Myanmar's generals to reform.

Political turbulence in some countries may delay ratification of the charter, while slowing economic growth may retard progress towards economic integration, analysts said.

"We can't expect to move as fast as the European Union," said K. Kesavapany, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "The EU has gotten over the issues of nationalism but Asean has yet to grapple with that."

Thai media quoted the country's director-general of Asean Affairs in the foreign ministry as saying officials attending the meeting are concerned that signing any agreement at the meetings in Singapore could violate the constitution. Thailand takes over as Asean chairman from Singapore this month.

Noppadon Pattama, who was due to attend the meetings, quit as foreign minister last week after a court ruled that his signing of a joint communique with Cambodia backing its claim to an ancient temple claimed by both countries, was illegal.

A political uproar in Thailand over the issue has been stoked by anti-government groups seeking to oust the government.

Malaysia's government, reeling from a March general election that handed the ruling party its biggest setback in 50 years, is also facing strong political headwinds after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was arrested on Wednesday on charges of sodomy.

"I'm not sure whether there will be ratification announcements during next week," said Rodolfo Severino, Secretary-General of Asean from 1998-2002. "Thailand was a good candidate for ratification, but now that they don't have a foreign minister, and with all kinds of political events, maybe they don't have the time to do it."

Asean signed a charter last November that aims to create an economically, socially and politically linked community by 2015. But four countries including Thailand have yet to ratify the constitution, whose soft deadline is in December.

The charter calls for a regional human rights body, which critics say lacks provisions to punish members such as Myanmar.

Long dismissed as a talking shop, Asean’s charter aims to create a booming EU-style economic bloc and free trade area in a region once known as a bastion of protectionism. But soaring inflation from escalating food and fuel prices in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia may slow that process.

"Asean cannot do anything to escape from the negative impact of high oil prices and food shortages, so of course it will slow down economic integration," said Kesavapany.

Herman Kraft, executive director of Manila-based Institute for Strategic and Development Studies, said another threat to economic integration was the non-ratification of the charter.

"Greater levels of economic cooperation may now be needed. But it is predicated on the Asean Economic Community being effective and the AEC is dependent on the charter which because of political reasons may not be ratified."




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