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Saturday, May 07, 2011

Southeast Asian leaders wade into deadly Thai, Cambodian border dispute

Niniek Karmini, The Associated Press

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Southeast Asian leaders sought to help Thailand and Cambodia end deadly clashes along their disputed border, saying peace and stability were the prerequisite to larger goals of regional economic integration and security.

The two sides agreed to hold talks Sunday — mediated by Indonesia's president — as part of efforts to hammer out a lasting cease-fire.

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But with acrimony high, it was unclear just how much could be accomplished.

Other topics on the agenda of the two-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, summit included Myanmar's bid to take over the rotating chair of the 10-member regional grouping, spiraling food and energy prices, and maritime security in the South China Sea.
The main tensions there are over the potentially oil-rich Spratly islands, claimed in whole or in part by China and four ASEAN members — Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam.

The smaller nations, together with the U.S., worry that China may use its military might to seize the area outright or assume de facto control with naval patrols.

That could threaten one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario raised the need for ASEAN to end a nine-year disagreement with China that has prevented the two sides from completing the guidelines of an accord aimed at preventing armed conflicts over the disputed islands.

The guidelines would allow all five of the countries to pursue joint development projects to ease tensions in the South China Sea region.

The summit that wraps up Sunday is supposed to focus on steps needed to create an integrated regional economic zone by 2015.

But Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in his opening statement that little can be accomplished without peace and stability between member countries.

To that end, he will host a meeting between the Cambodian and Thai prime ministers to try to end repeated outbreaks of fighting that have claimed nearly 20 lives in the last two weeks and sent 100,000 people fleeing from their homes.

The dispute — allegedly over control of ancient temples claimed by the two nations — has stirred nationalist sentiment on both sides.

But analysts say domestic politics is fanning the fire, especially in Thailand, where the military that staged a coup in 2006 could be posturing ahead of elections expected as early as next month.

Though agreement to accept mediation was a good sign — Thailand has previously said the matter must be resolved directly between it and Cambodia — tensions remain high.

The two sides came up with preconditions Friday for sending Indonesian observers to the border, but Cambodia quickly lambasted a request by Thailand to first remove troops from its own side of the frontier.

"Can you imagine that Cambodia withdraw from their own territory? It's nonsense!" Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters at the summit Saturday.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva insisted, however, that his country had no ill intention toward their eastern neighbour.

"We have a number of bilateral mechanisms that are functioning," Vejjajiva said, referring to Cambodia's attempt to seek a settlement through the International Court of Justice.

"This is something that we should talk about ... and prove to the world that as members of ASEAN, this can be resolved."

Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, who heads the military-backed party that overwhelmingly won general elections late last year, was expected to ask for the right, meanwhile, to chair ASEAN in 2014.

Some countries say Myanmar is ready, but others argue that, despite the recent release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the government has not yet done enough to improve human rights.

Myanmar still has more than 2,000 political prisoners.

The regional grouping is supposed to rotate its chair every year between member countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

However, Myanmar was forced to skip its turn in 2005 after coming under heavy pressure from the international community over slow progress on national reconciliation and human rights.

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to the media as Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, left, and others listen after Hun Sen attended a meeting at the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, May 7, 2011. (AP / Achmad Ibrahim)

The Associated Press

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The prime ministers of Thailand and Cambodia agreed to meet with Indonesia's president at a summit of Southeast Asian leaders to try to find a way to end repeated deadly clashes along their disputed border, officials said.

The border issue dominated the mood at the annual meeting that also had Myanmar's bid to become chair of the regional grouping high on the agenda.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono opened the two-day summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which is supposed to focus on steps needed to create an integrated regional economic zone by 2015.

But little can be accomplished, he said, without peace and stability between the 10 member countries.

To that end, Yudhoyono will host a meeting between the Cambodian and Thai prime ministers Sunday to try to hammer out a lasting cease-fire to end repeated outbreaks of fighting that have killed more than a dozen people over two weeks and forced nearly 100,000 villagers to flee.

Though agreement by both sides to accept mediation was a good sign -- Thailand has previously said the matter must be resolved directly between it and Cambodia -- it's unclear how much can be accomplished given the acrimony.

The two sides came up with preconditions Friday for sending Indonesian observers to the border, but Cambodia quickly lambasted a request by Thailand to first remove troops from its own side of the frontier.

"Can you imagine that Cambodia withdraw from their own territory? It's nonsense!" Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters at the summit Saturday.

Other security concerns on the table were terrorism following the death of Osama bin Laden and tensions over the potentially oil-rich Spratly islands claimed by China and four ASEAN nations -- a dispute that worries the U.S. as well.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters that during the ministerial meeting, he raised the need for ASEAN to end a nine-year disagreement with China that has prevented both sides from completing the guidelines of a 2002 accord aimed at preventing armed conflicts over the Spratlys.

The guidelines would allow China and other claimant countries -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- to pursue joint development projects to ease tensions in the South China Sea region.

Meanwhile, Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, who heads the military-backed party that overwhelmingly won general elections late last year, was expected to ask for the right to chair ASEAN in 2014.

Some countries say Myanmar is ready, but others argue that, despite the recent release of pro-democracy leader Ang Sang Suu Kyi, the government has not yet done enough to improve human rights.

Myanmar still has more than 2,000 political prisoners.

The regional grouping is supposed to rotate its chair every year between member countries -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

However, Myanmar was forced to skip its turn in 2005 after coming under heavy pressure from the international community over slow progress on national reconciliation and human rights.
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Thai-Cambodia stoush overshadows ASEAN meeting

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Indonesia on Saturday under the cloud of conflict on the Thai-Cambodia border and ongoing rights abuses in Myanmar.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono opened the two-day summit in his country's capital, which is expected to focus on long-term efforts to create a closely integrated regional economic zone by 2015.

Other issues expected to be addressed include the scourge of human trafficking in the region, food security, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and East Timor's membership bid.

But even before the presidents and prime ministers of the disparate 10-nation bloc sat down in Jakarta's cavernous convention centre, their discussions had been framed by negative news from troubled member states.

Burma stole the headlines on Friday when it was announced that the military-led country and serial human rights abuser had asked to chair the group in 2014.

US-based Human Rights Watch said ASEAN, already struggling for credibility, would become the "laughing stock of intergovernmental forums" if it gave the chair to such a pariah state.

ASEAN leaders are also facing mounting pressure to help end a bloody border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia which has claimed 18 lives and temporarily displaced 85,000 people in recent months.

"We realise that to ensure a peaceful and stable East Asia region, we must ensure stability and security in our region," Mr Yudhoyono said in his opening speech.

"If conflict occurs, ASEAN must be capable of facilitating a forum for diplomacy and open dialogue with the intent of attaining common peace."

Until now, conflict resolution has been alien to a trade-focused group that works on a principle of non-interference in members' internal affairs, despite criticism over the years that it is nothing but a talking shop.

Its halting efforts to negotiate an end to the Thai-Cambodian conflict - a move described by ASEAN chief Surin Pitsuwan as a "great leap forward" -- are being closely watched as a litmus test of its lofty ambitions to create a more integrated regional economic and security community in just four years' time.

Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa met his counterparts from both countries in Jakarta on Friday and said they had agreed to accept 15 Indonesian military observers on each side of the disputed frontier.

But he said the modest observer mission, which would have no power to police a ceasefire, had yet to be dispatched because of disagreements over troop locations.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a ceasefire and said the neighbours should launch "serious dialogue", while backing ASEAN's mediation role. Washington has also said it supports ASEAN's efforts.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Burma skipped its turn to chair ASEAN in 2006 due to international pressure for democratic reforms, but only on condition that it could ask to lead the group when it felt it was ready.

The country's president Thein Sein met Mr Yudhoyono - both former generals - in Jakarta on Thursday on what is his first trip abroad as president since he was sworn in on March 30.

Mr Natalegawa confirmed Burma's request would be discussed but suggested that a decision would be deferred until the country's "readiness" for the job could be assessed.

The military-led nation is a constant source of embarrassment for ASEAN's more democratic states, trumping other problem members such as communist Vietnam and Laos, which have significant human rights issues of their own.

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November shortly after an election, the country's first in 20 years, that led to the handover of power from the military to a nominally civilian government.

Her release was welcomed worldwide, but Western governments which impose sanctions on Burma want the new government to do more to demonstrate its commitment to human rights.

In his opening speech, Yudhoyono warned fellow South East Asian states that rising food and energy prices could drive more people into poverty and urged coordinated action to fight inflation.

"History shows that the rise of food and energy prices... has always caused the increase in the number of people living in poverty," he said.
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Cambodia PM blasts Thailand at ASEAN summit

JAKARTA—A summit of Southeast Asian leaders focusing on economic integration took a dramatic turn Saturday when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen blasted his Thai counterpart over a bloody border dispute.

Hun Sen took the floor of the closed-door opening session of the two-day summit in Jakarta and accused Thailand of attacking its neighbor in a contested border area near an 11th-century Khmer temple, attendees said.

One foreign minister described the fiery Cambodian leader as "quite aggressive" and observers said the assembled Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) leaders were surprised at the outburst.

"It became a little dramatic, but I think that's just the way that Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers speeches," Philippine presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters after the encounter: "We had a frank discussion this morning."

"We need to resolve the problem because we don't want this to be a problem that would affect ASEAN's agenda on community building," he added.

The border spat was not on the formal agenda of the two-day summit but it is overshadowing discussions on ASEAN's long-term efforts to create a closely integrated regional economic zone by 2015.

Other issues on the table include food and energy security, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the scourge of human trafficking and East Timor's membership bid.

But even before the presidents and prime ministers of the disparate 10-nation bloc sat down in Jakarta's cavernous convention center, their discussions had been framed by negative news from troubled member states.

Myanmar stole the headlines on Friday when ASEAN officials announced that the military-led country -- which is under Western sanctions for serial human rights abuses -- had asked to chair the group in 2014.

US-based Human Rights Watch said ASEAN, already struggling for credibility, would become the "laughing stock of intergovernmental forums" if it granted the request.

ASEAN leaders are meanwhile facing mounting pressure to help end the Thai-Cambodian conflict, which has claimed 18 lives and temporarily displaced 85,000 people in weeks of clashes.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke of the dangers of rising food and energy prices, climate change and unrest in the Middle East during his opening remarks.

But without mentioning the Thai-Cambodian row, he also reminded his fellow leaders that ASEAN could no longer use the bloc's long-held principle of non-interference to shirk the need to resolve conflicts between member states.

"We realize that to ensure a peaceful and stable East Asia region, we must ensure stability and security in our region," the ex-general said.

"If conflict occurs, ASEAN must be capable of facilitating a forum for diplomacy and open dialogue with the intent of attaining common peace."

ASEAN's halting efforts to negotiate an end to the clashes are being closely watched as a litmus test of its soaring ambition to create an integrated regional community in just four years' time.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa met his counterparts from Thailand and Cambodia in Jakarta on Friday and said they had agreed to accept Indonesian military observers at the disputed frontier.

But he said the modest observer mission, which would have no power to police a ceasefire, had yet to be dispatched because of stubborn differences over troop locations.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters that Phnom Penh would never agree to Bangkok's demands to pull troops out of the Preah Vihear temple.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to ASEAN to help solve the problem peacefully," he said.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said there was little enthusiasm among ASEAN leaders for the conflict to be internationalized with direct UN involvement, as Cambodia has sought.

"I think what all the other ASEAN leaders have been saying this morning is that we should keep the conflict within the ASEAN family," he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have publicly backed ASEAN's mediation role.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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