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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Speed bumps on the Asean highway


Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has garnered praise from other national leaders at previous Asean meetings, but the full-scale summit he's hosting next week in Cha-am/Hua Hin will test him.

Abhisit's cool and steady hand on the reins at the 14th summit in the same locale early this year impressed Malaysia's then-premier, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who raved to reporters afterwards.

The academically inclined Abhisit has little problem conducting meetings of any kind thanks to his knack for staying on top of issues and responding appropriately.

Foreign Ministry officials were ready with back-up details for the Prime Minister at the earlier Asean gathering and found he didn't need them. No one needed to whisper in his ear.

The 15th summit next weekend - October 23 to 25 - is a full-scale meeting with Asean's East Asian and Pacific Rim partners attending, meaning there will be 16 state leaders in all.

Though just nine months in office, Abhisit has met most of them several times.

And he's also on steady ground with the central issue on the agenda: formally inaugurating the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights.

He's quite familiar with the other topics, too - food and energy security, establishing rules to settle internal disputes, and dealing with natural disasters, climate change and the economic crisis.

But Abhisit faces two critical challenges at the summit: domestic security and the border conflict with Cambodia, which is a fellow Asean member as well as a next-door neighbour.

Abhisit appears to have made summit security a priority, warning that the draconian Internal Security Law would be enforced in Cha-am/Hua Hin and Bangkok through most of October.

The move is not groundless, with anti-government red-shirt protesters having shut down the April Asean meeting in Pattaya. Thailand, which yields the Asean chairmanship at the end of this year, cannot afford another such disruption.

The red shirts of the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship have threatened to derail next week's summit if the government blocks their concurrent rally in Bangkok.

And facing Abhisit across the table at the coming summit will be Cambodian Premier Hun Sen, who will raise the long-standing and newly revived dispute over Preah Vihear.

The issue became heated again last year when Thailand objected to Cambodia's bid to have the centuries-old temple listed as a World Heritage site.

Although a UN agency ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear is Cambodian property, the Abhisit government is insisting that the adjacent 4.6 square kilometres were never properly demarcated and in fact belong to Thailand.

A joint boundary commission has undertaken the slow process of demarcation, but Hun Sen wants to talk about the temple at the Asean summit, his foreign minister Hor Namhong has indicated.

In its several attempts since last year to have an international forum decide the temple's fate, including last year's Asean ministerial meeting in Singapore, Cambodia has tended to be bombastic in its claim to ownership.

Thailand's representatives have been repeatedly forced to explain their position.

How will Abhisit handle the situation if Hun Sen mentions Preah Vihear in every session next weekend? As the summit's chairman, he'll be hard-pressed to respond fairly, if not prevented from doing so by Asean's rules of conduct.

Unless Abhisit manages to sideline the Preah Vihear conflict ahead of the summit, Hun Sen could well be the one this time to cast a gloomy shadow over the gathering.

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