Empresas y finanzas

ASEAN tackles border spat, rights and Myanmar

By Manny Mogato

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Southeast Asian ministers urgedCambodia and Thailand on Monday to show restraint over amilitary standoff on their border and took steps to create aregional human rights body.

The 10 members of the Association of South East AsianNations were also tackling spiralling food and fuel prices attheir annual meeting on Monday, as worsening inflation adds topolitical turbulence in the region.

The group, seeking to create a European Union-stylecommunity encompassing a half-billion people with a combinedGDP of $1.2 trillion (600 billion pounds), was set to againexpress profound disappointment with junta-ruled Myanmar, itsmost problematic member, according to a draft communique.

With Thailand and Cambodia holding high-level talks onMonday aimed at resolving the dispute over a 900-year-oldtemple on their border, ASEAN ministers offered to helpmediate.

"The situation has escalated dangerously, with troops fromboth sides faced off on disputed territory near the PreahVihear temple," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saidin a speech opening the ASEAN meeting. "ASEAN could not standidly by without damaging its credibility."

ASEAN's diplomacy on the issue "reflects a growing sensethat ASEAN is no longer just a 'talk-shop', but a maturingcommunity of nations prepared to act to advance its collectiveinterests", the prime minister said.

After a week of diplomatic sparring and a build-up oftroops, expectations for a breakthrough were low, but bothsides said they wanted to ease tensions.

Analysts say domestic politics in Thailand, where thetemple is known as Khao Pra Viharn, have played a key role infuelling the border dispute.

HUMAN RIGHTS BODY

The foreign ministers, representing countries that includea kingdom, a military junta, communist states and democracies,are expected to agree a framework for a landmark human rightsbody.

"It's going to be tough negotiations," said an officialnominated to the high-level panel that will negotiate on thefunctions and powers of the proposed human rights body.

The foreign ministers are also discussing "the growingchallenge posed by rising oil and food prices ... to ourpeople's welfare as well as our countries' continued economicdevelopment", the draft joint communique says.

The high-growth economies of Southeast Asia are worriedglobal financial turmoil could lead to the kind of chainreactions that destabilised them in the "Asian contagion"financial crisis of 1997-98, one Philippines official said.

Spiralling prices contributed to unprecedented oppositiongains in Malaysia's general election last March and are stokingpolitical turmoil elsewhere in the region, including food riotsand protests in some countries and export restrictions inothers.

ASEAN aims to sign a landmark charter at its annual summitin December that would create an EU-style community among itsmembers, although three countries -- Indonesia, Thailand andthe Philippines -- have yet to ratify the document.

"ASEAN has decided to press on with the charter'simplementation without waiting for all 10 member states toratify," Lee said in his speech.

"ASEAN cannot take its continued relevance for granted. Ifour efforts to achieve faster and deeper integration falter,ASEAN may well be sidelined," he said.

Myanmar formally handed in its charter ratification papersat Monday's meeting, meaning the military junta is signing upto plans for economic liberalisation and the human rights body.But the body's powers have yet to be decided, and with deepdivisions between the group, it could be toothless.

ASEAN's inability to get Myanmar's junta to reform has beena major stumbling block in its ambition to exert economic anddiplomatic muscle.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo on Monday said he hadmisunderstood Myanmar's comments the previous day on when thegenerals could release detained opposition leader Aung San SuuKyi -- a limit for her detention would be reached six monthsfrom May 2009, dampening hopes she could be freed six monthsfrom now.

Suu Kyi has been confined for nearly 13 of the past 19years. The draft declaration expressed "deep disappointment"Suu Kyi's detention under house arrest had been extended in Mayand called for her release and that of all political detainees.

(Additional reporting by Melanie Lee and Neil Chatterjee,Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by David Fox)

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