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Saturday, October 24, 2009

'Cool' Thais downplay verbal spat with Cambodia

Cha-am, Thailand - Thailand on Saturday downplayed a diplomatic spat that erupted with Cambodia at a South-East Asian in Cha-am over the weekend that was to supposed to demonstrate regional solidarity and "connectivity."The summit got off to rocky start Friday after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced upon arrival his intention to provide asylum to fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra and to offer him a job as economic advisor.

Hun Sen also insisted Cambodia would not extradite Thaksin, who faces a two-tear jail sentence in Thailand on abuse-of-pwer chareges, if he moved to Cambodia.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, for whom Thaksin is an arch political foe, responded to Hun Sen's diplomatic offensive by suggesting the Cambodian premier had been misinformed and was being used as a "pawn" by Thaksin, who has been living in self-exile since August, 2008.

Despite the tempestuous start, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya insisted the summit had been carried out with "civility."

"We have been approaching everything in a very cool, impartial manner," Kaset told a press conference after the conclusion of a two- day summit among the leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cha-am, 130 kilometres south-west of Bangkok.

He said Hun Sen had participated in all the talks "in a constructive manner," and had even backed a proposal that Thailand become the base for a regional emergency financial fund to be set up at the end of the year with a suggested pooled amount of 120 billion dollars.

"It's not like our differences will make us hate each other," Kasit said. "There is civility. There is a need to foster and build up the relationship as much as possible."

Thailand and Cambodia have a long history of animosity and border spats, the latest one being over joint claims to land adjacent to the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the Thai-Cambodian border that broke out last year.

A pro-Thaksin government in July, last year backed Cambodia's bid to get the temple listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site despite an unsettled territory dispute.

The previous government was charged with helping Phnom Penh to benefit from one of Thaksin's business deals in Cambodia. The new Thai government under Abhisit has insisted on settling the territorial dispute before opening the temple to tourists again.

Thaksin has a long personal relationship with Hun Sen dating back to when he was a business tycoon and won a 90-year concession to offer telecommunication services in Cambodia.

ASEAN, which includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, has followed a policy of non-interference with one another's internal and even bilateral affairs.

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Japan pushes for Asia bloc, US role uncertain

Japan’s prime minister backed a US role for a proposed EU-style Asian community on Saturday, telling Southeast Asian leaders Tokyo’s alliance with Washington was at the heart of its diplomacy.

Making a case for an East Asian Community at a summit of Asian leaders in Thailand, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said there should be some US involvement in the bloc, which faces stiff obstacles including Japan’s historic rivalry with China.

It was unclear how a US role would work. But the comment may help allay concern in some countries that such a body would ultimately fail by shutting out the world’s biggest economy.

Hatoyama may also be trying to defuse U.S.-Japan tension over the long-planned reorganisation of the American military presence in Japan, the first big test of ties between Washington and the new Japanese government.

‘Japan places the U.S.-Japan alliance at the foundation of its diplomacy,’ Hatoyama said at the meeting, according to a Japanese government spokesman.

‘I would like to firmly promote regional cooperation in East Asia with a long-term vision of forming an East Asian Community.’ Several Southeast Asian leaders expressed support for the bloc, but none spoke of a US role at the meetings.

The talks are part of a three-day leaders’ summit which got off to a rancorous start on Friday, marred by a diplomatic spat between Thailand and neighbour Cambodia, a trade feud over Filipino rice and a few no-shows in the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

China had a very different message at the meetings, signalling possible trouble ahead for Hatoyama. While he promoted a new community, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao focused on the current one, delivering what Chinese state media described as a six-point proposal for strengthening links with ASEAN.

This included developing a recently signed China-ASEAN free trade pact and accelerating regional infrastructure construction.

An ASEAN statement summing up talks within its own members urged its most recalcitrant state, Myanmar, to ensure elections next year are free and fair, though it stopped short of seeking the release of detained pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

That came a day after ASEAN launched a human rights commission as part of a plan to build an economic and political community by 2015, and drew a scathing rebuke from rights activists who said it was toothless and lacked independence.

The region’s leaders also called on North Korea to return to six-way nuclear disarmament talks.

The summit in the resort town of Hua Hin gave Asia’s economic titans, China and Japan, a chance to jockey for influence in Southeast Asia, a region of 570 million people with a combined $1.1 trillion economy, as it pulls out of recession.

Japan’s new government sees its influence bound to the East Asian Community, an idea inspired by the European Union that would account for nearly a quarter of global economic output.

It would encompass Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, along with ASEAN countries.

After meetings with China, Japan and South Korea, ASEAN holds talks on Sunday with India, Australia and New Zealand.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Sunday will push another idea for a new, separate forum of Asia-Pacific nations to respond to regional crises. His idea includes the United States.

Washington has stepped up Asian diplomacy under the Obama administration and fears missing out on such groupings, especially as Japan considers redefining its US security alliance, and Beijing expands its diplomatic and trade presence.

Exactly how Washington would participate is uncertain.

Asked if Washington would be a member of the Community, a Japanese government official told reporters: ‘It remains unclear. We have to see how multilateral meetings will turn out today.’

The proposal wasn’t elaborated upon, said Mari Elka Pangestu, trade minister of Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. ‘How the US participates — because the US is one of our dialogue partners — we need to think through.’

China has been coy about the idea while rapidly expanding ties across Southeast Asia — from building sleek new government offices in Cambodia to working closely with reclusive Myanmar.

‘China wants to establish healthy relations with the new government in Japan, so it is not going to object to discussing this idea,’ said Shi Yinhong, a regional security professor at Beijing’s Renmin University.

‘But everybody understands the idea of an East Asia Community is extremely far off,’ he added.

Host Thailand deployed about 18,000 security personnel backed by military gunships, determined to avoid a rerun of mishaps at past summits.

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Thai-Cambodia spat couds ASEAN Summit

, Oct 24 : A war of words between Southeast Asian neighbours Thailand and Cambodia over coup-ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra, has marred the ASEAN Summit taking place at Hua Hin near here.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is current chair of the 10-nation grouping, has questioned his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen's defence of Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in a bloodless coup in September 2006.''What is the purpose of Prime Minister Hun Sen coming to Thailand? And what has he said that was in line with the aim of the meeting?'' Mr Abhisit told a press conference.

Mr Abhisit was responding to Mr Hun Sen's reported remarks to the press on his arrival in Hua Hin that his country was ready to offer refuge to Mr Thaksin, who is living abroad in self-imposed exile to avoid prosecution in Thailand on corruption charges.

Mr Hun Sen added that the former Thai Prime Minister could become his economic advisor and insisted that Phnom Penh would not be legally obliged to extradite Mr Thaksin on Bangkok's request.

Mr Hun Sen said Mr Thaksin was a political victim of the 2006 military takeover in Bangkok and compared him to Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Thai Prime Minister said the ASEAN Summit was aimed at building a stronger Southeast Asian community and dismissed his Cambodian counterpart's remarks.

''(ASEAN) has no time to pay attention to a person who wants to destroy ASEAN unity. And I hope Prime Minister Hun Sen will receive the right information and change his mind on the matter,'' Mr Abhisit said. Read more!

Pressure Off Burmese PM


CHA-AM, Thailand — Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein was relaxed at the 15th Asean Summit in the Thai beach town of Hua Hin. The pressure he had felt from his counterparts in earlier meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) had simply evaporated.

The lack of significant criticsm of Burma at the current meeting, which ends on Sunday, was no doubt even felt by his boss, Sen-Gen Than Shwe, and other junta generals back in Naypyidaw, the capital.

The lack of criticism doesn’t mean that human rights violations in the military-ruled country have stopped. About 2,100 political prisoners still languish in its notorious jails and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still under an 18-month house arrest.

What’s changed are regional and national factors: the current border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia; the tardy arrival of half of the Asean leaders because of a tropical storm; domestic political matters in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia; and the negotiations involved in forming an Asean economic community by 2015, which was one of the summit’s chief goals.

More importantly, the diplomatic dance between Burma and the United States in recent weeks has overshadowed Burma’s presence at the summit. A US delegation will visit Burma soon to begin direct talks with junta leaders, part of a new US “engagement policy” announced in September.

At the Asean 2007 summit in Singapore, Thein Sein was pressure by his counterparts after the junta violently suppressed mass demonstrations organized by monks, killing and jailing peaceful protestors, which outraged the world community.

Asean host chair Singapore had invited UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to Burma to brief the leaders of 16 Asian countries, including China and Japan, on his visits to Burma after the crackdown.

Thein Sein’s retort: “Nobody has the right to brief on Myanmar but me” caused a diplomatic furor and the invitation was revoked.

Thein Sein and his delegation also faced also Asean pressure at the 14th summit in Feb-Mar this year. The United States, as the strongest vocal critic of the military regime, raised the issue of Burma’s stonewalling on civil rights in one-on-one conversations with delegates. In addition, the civil society representatives highlighted the issue of the scores of Rohingya, who had fled Burma to Thailand by boat, to escape harsh economic conditions and discrimination in western Burma.

In July this year, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win was the focus of Asean pressure at the ministerial meeting of the Asean Regional Forum. At that time, Suu Kyi, who was due to be released in May, faced trial, following the bizarre intrusion of an American into her Rangoon lakeside compound. Apart from her trial, international concerns also centered on Burma’s military ties with North Korea and the issue of nuclear weapons.

During this summit, Then Sein did manage to inject himself into the current tension between Thailand and Cambodia, following a war of words after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen offered sanctuary to fugitive ex-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thein Sein reportedly told the Thai prime minister that Burma would not allow anyone to use its soil as a springboard to attack Thailand.

Even though the pressure was off Thein Sein at this summit, the Burma issue didn’t go away entirely. On Saturday, Asean leaders again called on the junta to conduct free and fair elections in 2010, but avoided criticizing it directly.

The statement read: “We underscore the importance of achieving national reconciliation and that the general elections to be held in Myanmar [Burma] in 2010 must be conducted in a fair, free, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community.”

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told reporters late Saturday that Asean didn’t take tougher measures this time because there were positive developments, such as the direct contact between Suu Kyi and the military regime and between the US and the regime. He said, however, Asean’s policy remains firm in terms of calling for the release of all political prisoners and including opposition groups in the upcoming election.

The diplomatic pressure that Burma has faced in the past has lessened, at least for right now, mostly because it comes at a time when the junta is undertaking face-to-face talks with the US.

However, some Burma watchers believe that Than Shwe is just “buying time” while the junta consolidates more power, as the generals have done over the past two decades.

One thing is clear. It was a mistake for Asean leaders to take a soft approach toward Burma at this summit, before the junta has made any significant progress toward democracy and national reconciliation.

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