November 21, 2007
ASEAN SUMMIT : MYANMAR CRISIS
Southeast Asian summit soured by Myanmar row
Southeast Asian leaders vowed Tuesday to forge ahead with their annual summit, which has been thrown into disarray by a dispute over how much pressure to put on the ruling generals of Myanmar.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a plea for the crisis in Myanmar, which has exposed divisions within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), not to completely dominate the summit.
"ASEAN leaders will strive to prevent the Myanmar issue from obstructing our efforts to deepen integration and build an ASEAN community," said Lee, the summit host as the bloc marks its 40th anniversary.
The bloc's 10 leaders got on with business Tuesday, including the signing of a long-awaited charter and a blueprint for economic integration to create a common market of half a billion people.
But observers said ASEAN's credibility had been shattered by Myanmar's success in forcing the cancellation of UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari's planned briefing on the crisis in the military-run country.
Gambari said he was "disappointed of course" by the decision to axe his talks with 16 Asian leaders here on the results of his two visits to Myanmar since the regime's violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September.
"That was why I came here," he said in an interview with AFP.
However, he said that while the briefing would have been a "bonus", he was heartened by ASEAN's statement urging the junta to move forward with national reconciliation and continue working with the United Nations.
Singapore had invited Gambari to address the ASEAN leaders, together with their six dialogue partners, including China and Japan, who collectively make up the East Asia Summit (EAS).
But during heated talks at dinner Monday, Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein objected to the event, which some other Southeast Asian leaders also opposed on the grounds it had been taken outside the ASEAN forum.
A diplomat told AFP 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. Instead he walked away with a victory as his neighbours caved in.
"That's a domestic issue, no need to raise in EAS," Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win said on Tuesday.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar insisted the move should not be "considered a slap to the UN" and that Gambari could meet with leaders individually. Philippines President Gloria Arroyo was to see him on Tuesday.
But observers said the atmosphere had been poisoned by the Myanmar fiasco.
"Certainly, this is a victory for Myanmar," said Hiro Katsumata from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
"What is lost is the reputation of the association," he told AFP.
The United States said here that ASEAN's credibility was at stake over its handling of Myanmar, which the bloc has been reluctant to punish despite its refusal to shift to democracy or release opposition leader Aung San 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 landmark charter signed Tuesday, which commits member states to notions of democracy and human rights, had to be watered down before all 10 members agreed to sign.
Arroyo has warned that her country might not ratify the charter unless Aung San Suu Kyi is released -- in a major challenge to the bloc's consensus-based approach.
ASEAN leaders also approved a blueprint for a common market embracing the region's nearly 570 million people by 2015 -- a target which faces significant hurdles.
"A free and open investment regime is key to enhancing ASEAN's competitiveness in attracting foreign direct investment as well as intra-ASEAN investment," the document said.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
More on ASEAN
More on the ASEAN Summit