Asean Hopes for a Calm, Constructive Summit – The Irrawaddy

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Masked Thai dancers wearing colorful costumes perform during the opening of the 15th ASEAN Summit. (Photo: Reuters)

Masked Thai dancers wearing colorful costumes perform during the opening of the 15th ASEAN Summit. (Photo: Reuters)

HUA HIN, Thailand — The 15th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) gets underway on Friday, with host Thailand welcoming heads of government from member states, including Burma’s Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein.

Before the summit started, the US stole some of Asean’s spotlight by announcing that it would send a delegation on a “fact-finding” trip to Burma, possibly within a few weeks

There are few signs that Asean members will pressure Burma to move toward democratization and reconciliation during the current summit.

Opening the proceedings, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told his counterparts that one of the goals of the summit was to further Asean integration, and, “We are working together to try to overcome the impact of the global economic crisis.”

But as usual, the issue of Burma looms over the regional bloc’s attempts to develop new institutions, and to move on from its traditional emphasis on consensus and non-interference, to promoting democracy and human rights.

On Friday, Asean officially launched its Asian Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. However, the new body can do little beyond promoting the concept of human rights, and it seems unlikely that it will be able to make any difference to rights violations in Burma or in other Asean-member states.

Sean Turnell, a Burma expert based at Macquarie University, told The Irrawaddy that Asean could use the summit more effectively if it “put something real into its human rights charter.”

A bit of controversy emerged before the summit officially began, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen offering sanctuary to fugitive ex-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

At the last Asean summit held in Phuket in April, redshirt Thai protestors, who support Thaksin, stormed the venue, prompting the meeting to be disbanded. This time around, the pro-Thaksin United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) has said that it will limit its protest to a petition letter which its leaders hope to deliever to Asean officials on Friday.

Asean chair Thailand hopes that the summit will be more low-key this time. An estimated 35,000 military and police personnel have been assigned to provide security in the area.

As Friday gives way to Saturday, heads of government from Asia’s “Big 3”––China, India and Japan––will join their Asean counterparts in Hua Hin, along with the South Korea, Australia and New Zealand prime ministers.

The six will meet their Asean counterparts, working on eventual free trade across the wider Asia-Pacific region. A projected free trade zone between China and Asean is slated for completion by January 2010. Both sides want to expand regional trade and investment, with China currently implementing the first stages of a US $10 billion infrastructure building fund to deepen ties with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

However, it is expected that meetings between the “Big 3” will take center stage as the weekend progresses.

China and India meet on the back of simmering border tensions, along their long frontier. While both sides label their bilateral relationship as constructive, with trade increasing 30-fold since 2000, to US $60 billion last year.

However, with the Dalai Lama scheduled to visit India’s Arunachai Pradesh State next month, the meeting could segue into some heated discussions, not least as China claims the state as part of its own territory.

Mike Green, who heads the Asia section at the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Irrawaddy, “I think Sino-Indian border tensions are becoming tenser and do not expect any magical breakthroughs in that particular bilateral relationship, though both sides want to stay focused on economic development and avoid confrontation.”

It is not clear whether there will be a bilateral summit meeting between China and Japan, but tensions are rising on both sides, as a new Japanese government attempts to promote greater regional economic integration in East Asia, and potentially loosen the US security alliance––something the US wants to avoid. Both countries have clashed over human rights issues, and, like India, Japan is wary of China’s growing economic and military influence in Asia.

Green, who was in Beijing recently, said, “The Sino-Japanese relationship should be thawing under the more ‘Asianist’ Hatoyama government, but the Chinese are finding that even more than being ‘Asianist,’ the DPJ is ‘populist,’ and this is causing a real concern in China.

With high-level meetings between Burma and India, and Burma and China, in the past week, the weekend Asean gathering might see some movement on the Burma-Bangladesh maritime and border disputes, as China and India have stakes in this issue.

With China and India competing for influence in Burma, the junta representatives will have ample opportunity to size up both suitors over the weekend.

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