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Thursday, February 26, 2009

ASEAN leaders challenged on rights, economy

by Thanaporn Promyamyai, Agence France-Presse

HUA HIN, Thailand - Southeast Asian leaders Thursday faced renewed pressure to deal with rights abuses in Myanmar on the eve of an annual summit likely to be dominated by the global economic crunch.

International rights watchdogs and the United States both urged Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders gathering here this weekend to push for reform in the military-ruled nation, the 10-member group's black sheep.

Tight security was in place in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin, amid fears anti-government protesters who have besieged the premier's office in Bangkok could turn their attentions to the three-day summit starting Friday.

ASEAN ministers are expected to discuss the formation of a regional human rights body on Friday, a day before heads of state formally meet, but Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch expressed concerns.

"To be worthy of its name, the body must be empowered to effectively address human rights in Myanmar," Donna Guest, London-based Amnesty's Asia-Pacific deputy director, said in a statement.

Myanmar, ruled by the military since 1962, is a member of ASEAN but has long been a thorn in its side, with Western nations urging the regional bloc to push the junta towards political reform.

The rights groups said the summit must in particular address the rights of refugees and migrants, in particular Myanmar's Rohingya boat people, whom the military of fellow ASEAN member Thailand is also accused of abusing.

They also highlighted recent harsh prison terms handed down to pro-democracy activists.

Separately the US ambassador to ASEAN, Scot Marciel, called on the region to push Myanmar's rulers for "political progress" using their contacts and access to the country.

ASEAN has not put the issue of the Rohingyas on its agenda for the rigidly organised summit, but Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said it might be discussed at an informal dinner with his colleagues late Wednesday.

Kasit defended the planned rights body, saying: "We are an ASEAN family... we can talk to one another without making demands or questioning."

But the focus of the summit is expected to be ASEAN's efforts to help its export-driven economies escape the ravages of the global financial crisis, with several member nations either already in recession or on the brink.

Leaders are to sign a declaration on a roadmap for forming a European Union-style community by 2015 and to formally initial a free-trade pact with Australia and New Zealand.

They will also discuss a 120-billion-dollar emergency fund agreed on by Asian finance ministers on Sunday -- but analysts warn that the region is largely at the mercy of what happens elsewhere.

Several ASEAN nations are also distracted by elections or political turmoil, with Thailand facing a recent resurgence of months of unrest that had forced the summit to be delayed from its original date in December.

Key regional partners including China, Japan and India have stayed away from the rescheduled summit.

In Bangkok, supporters of ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra rallied for a third day outside current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's office to demand new elections.

Thailand's Kasit, who faces calls to quit over his involvement in a protest movement that shuttered Bangkok's airports last year, defended his record and said he did not think his attendance at the summit would be a distraction.

"I am such a nice person and serving society to the best of my ability," Kasit said.

Officials said there was no threat to the summit from the latest protests but police said they had deployed more than 5,000 officers, including some with sniffer dogs, to protect the venue.

Thailand currently holds the rotating chair of ASEAN, which includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

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Two UK men found dead in Cambodia

Two British men have been found dead in a Cambodian hotel room after apparently snorting heroin by mistake.

Mark Ganley, 34, and David Hunt, 36, both originally from Southampton, were found in a hotel in the capital city Phnom Penh earlier this week while on holiday, sources said.

The Foreign Office added that consular assistance was given to the families of the men after the deaths were reported.

Cambodian police said businessman Mr Ganley, believed to be living in Vietnam at the time of his death with his partner, and journalist Mr Hunt had bloodied noses.

It is thought they died of overdoses after snorting heroin-based powder but believing it to be cocaine.

The men were found in a shared hotel room with a bag of white powder and some local currency after a maid entered.

Cambodian police are investigating the deaths.

Mr Hunt's sister Kate Sanderson told the Southern Daily Echo: "This was a tragic accident and we are devastated by our loss.

"Both Mark and David were talented individuals and were hugely loved and respected by family and friends alike. They will be sadly missed."

Mr Hunt worked for the Portsmouth based news agency M&Y and its director Pat Symes said: "David worked for us for three years and we were deeply shocked and saddened by the news. He was an outstanding news and sports journalist and is already greatly missed."
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Detention hearing for Khmer Rouge official delayed

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Judges at Cambodia's genocide tribunal say they have delayed a hearing on whether to release the Khmer Rouge's former foreign minister from pretrial detention, citing his poor health.

Head judge Prak Kimsan said Thursday the hearing was postponed until April 2 following an appeal by Ieng Sary's attorneys on health grounds. Ieng Sary did not appear in court.

It is the second time that Ieng Sary, 83, has filed a petition for release since his arrest in 2007 on charges of crimes against humanity.

He was hospitalized Monday with a urinary infection and returned to his cell Wednesday.

The U.N.-assisted tribunal has charged five people in connection with the estimated 1.7 million deaths during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule.
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