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Friday, October 23, 2009

Thaksin, trade rows erupt at Southeast Asian summit

By Jeremy Laurence

HUA HIN, Thailand (Reuters) - A Southeast Asian summit got off to a troubled start on Friday as hosts Thailand faced off against two neighbours in trade and diplomatic spats, and a new regional human rights body drew withering criticism.

Determined to avoid a rerun of embarrassing mishaps at past summits, Thailand deployed a security force of 18,000 backed by naval gunships to the seaside resort town of Hua Hin as leaders gathered. Tensions rose to the surface within hours.

In a slap in the face to Thailand's rulers, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen offered fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra a job as economic adviser.

Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup, heavily influences a red-shirted, anti-government protest movement from self-imposed exile in Dubai. Thailand is seeking to extradite him to serve a jail term for corruption.

"Thaksin can stay in Cambodia as the guest of Cambodia and also be my guest as my adviser on our economy," said Hun Sen, who described the former telecommunications tycoon on Wednesday as an "eternal friend" who had a residence in Cambodia waiting for him.

He likened Thaksin to pro-democracy figure and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest or in jail in military-ruled Myanmar.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had tough words for Hun Sen, calling him "seriously misinformed" as the row threatened to overtake other issues at the summit of leaders from the 10-member Association of South East Nations (ASEAN).

A trade dispute with the Philippines also deepened.

Last week Thailand, the world's biggest rice exporter, threatened to delay an ASEAN free trade pact unless it could get a "fair deal" on tariffs from the Philippines, the world's biggest buyer of the food staple.

Those differences could derail an ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement expected to be signed this weekend, undermining a key plank of an ambitious bid by Southeast Asia and its 540 million people to build an EU-style economic community by 2015.

"It's a very sensitive issue, we're friends, we need to talk this through," Thailand's deputy commerce minister Alongkorn Polabutr told Reuters.


Thailand had hoped for a smooth summit after hundreds of anti-government protesters broke through security barriers six months ago at a gathering at Thailand's resort town of Pattaya, forcing some Asian leaders to flee by helicopter and abruptly ending the summit.

Protests at Bangkok's airport last year forced another summit to be abandoned.

ASEAN leaders plan a series of meetings in Hua Hin, first among themselves and later with counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand at the weekend.

ASEAN also launched a human rights watchdog, which critics say is toothless and already discredited by having military-ruled Myanmar, seen as a serial rights abuser, as part of the mechanism.

The new body, called the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, has no power to punish members such as Myanmar and aims to promote rather than protect human rights.

Non-governmental rights organisations and London-based Amnesty International have expressed concerns over the body, while the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says it has no clear mandate for victims of abuse.

Debbie Stothard of the ASEAN People's Forum said five of the 10 governments had also rejected nominees from civil society groups for the watchdog and have replaced them with their own.

She said observers at Friday's meeting were instructed not to question the leaders.

"It's a big slap in the face for civil society. We are trying to engage with them (ASEAN)," she said. "This situation and the gag order is an irresponsible move by ASEAN governments and it will damage the credibility of the grouping."

ASEAN foreign ministers raised pressure on Myanmar on Thursday to hold "free and fair" elections next year, and urged the junta to free Suu Kyi.

The sentencing of Suu Kyi to a further 18 months of detention this year has prompted Western critics to dismiss next year's polls -- the first in two decades -- as a sham.

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