Phuket: Southeast Asian foreign ministers sought ways on Monday to boost their economies, fight terrorism and counter criticism that a new human rights commission will be a toothless body.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told ministers that the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) had stood firm against protectionism and was working hard to revive a region that has an annual economic output of $1.1 trillion.
“The world is now closely watching Asean, pinning on us the hope that we will be a dynamic growth pole for the global economy in this time of crisis,” Abhisit said in a speech to open the meeting in the Thai tourist island resort of Phuket.
Abhisit said food and energy security would be key concerns when the world economy recovered. Asean, along with China, Japan and South Korea, was working on making an emergency rice reserve a permanent fixture, he added, without giving details.
Some 10,000 troops have enforced a no-protest zone around the venue to prevent an embarrassing repeat of the last regional gathering in Thailand, when anti-government demonstrators breached security to scuttle the East Asia Summit, forcing half the leaders to be evacuated by helicopter.
The meeting comes ahead of Asia’s biggest annual security gathering, the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), which takes place on Thursday and where concerns over North Korea’s recent military moves are likely to take centre stage.
Those talks will include US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well foreign ministers from North Asia and officials from the European Union and Russia.
Asean foreign ministers condemned suicide bombings at two luxury hotels in Jakarta on Friday that killed nine people and wounded 53, including several foreign businessmen.
Indonesian police said the attacks bore the hallmarks of the militant Jemaah Islamiah group, which wants to establish an Islamic state in parts of Southeast Asia.
Focus on Human Rights
The ministers are expected to formally agree terms for the creation of a commission on human rights, which has been met with scepticism by analysts and rights groups given Asean’s long-stated policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs.
Officials said on Sunday the group had agreed to take into account the “special circumstances” of the 10 member countries, which include military-ruled Myanmar, a frequent target from the West over its human rights record.
“It’s better to make a start than leave this hanging with no purpose at all,” Abhisit later told a news conference.
“We want to establish a body that begins with the issue of promotion (of rights). Once that is put into place, there will be more teeth for the body in terms of protection.”
Thai officials have said they expect the United States to join the Asean Treaty on Amity and Cooperation this week, a move that would signal Washington’s renewed engagement with Southeast Asia, a region home to 570 million people.
Some analysts have suggested Washington, which routinely sent lower level officials to Asean meetings under former President George W. Bush, wants more involvement in the region to counter China’s growing influence.
The treaty is one of the key documents that underpins Asean. Other countries, including China, have acceded to the treaty.
Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said last week Clinton wanted to emphasise Washington’s interest in Asean. He said it was possible Washington could accede to the treaty this week.
China’s growing economic clout and huge market make it an important participant in Asean summits, but tensions persist over competing claims in the South China Sea.