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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Southeast Asian leaders: Lift Myanmar sanctions

By JIM GOMEZ, Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Southeast Asian leaders called Wednesday for Western countries, including the European Union, to immediately lift punitive sanctions imposed on Myanmar now that the once-pariah nation has embraced democratic reforms.

The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations made the call after concluding an annual summit in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Myanmar was represented at the gathering by President Thein Sein, who received a flurry of praise for the recent reforms in his poor Southeast Asian nation, most recently Sunday's by-elections won by pro-democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said the appeal for sanctions to be lifted would first be relayed to the EU, which punished formerly military-ruled Myanmar for massive human rights violations.

"We called for the lifting of all sanctions on Myanmar immediately in order to contribute positively to the democratic process and economic development in that country," the heads of state said in a statement, promising to help when Myanmar assumes ASEAN's rotating chairmanship in 2014.

During the two-day summit, Thein Sein reported to the other leaders that the elections saw a huge turnout of voters and were held peacefully, drawing praise from his counterparts, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said.

Myanmar's government, basking in newfound confidence, invited all of ASEAN's foreign ministers to visit the country's capital city of Naypyitaw as a group, possibly in the next few months, diplomats said.

Until recently, Myanmar was the black sheep of ASEAN, with other member countries repeatedly reprimanding it for its failure to move forward on a promised roadmap to democracy, including the freeing of Suu Kyi from years of house arrest.

"This is a tremendous change in the dynamics nowadays," Natalegawa said. "Normally the Myanmar issue is discussed as a problem but now it's seen as very much different."

"Certainly there was no condemnation; there were lots of commendations," he said.

Natalegawa said ASEAN foreign ministers would relay their appeal for the sanctions' lifting when they meet their EU counterparts in the near future.

Last month, the EU suspended entry restrictions against 87 top Myanmar officials to reward its moves toward political reforms, but a freeze on their assets will be maintained until further notice. The EU also still has in place an arms embargo and a ban on the sale of goods linked to internal repression. It also has suspended certain development aid programs.

The weekend vote in Myanmar will fill just 45 vacant seats in the country's 664-seat Parliament but took on historic significance because of Suu Kyi's presence. After two decades as a political prisoner, Suu Kyi won a victory that marked a turn in her political career and for the country as it emerges from a half-century of military rule.

While they mustered a united front on Myanmar, some Southeast Asian countries wrangled over a proposal to craft a nonaggression accord aimed at preventing armed clashes over territorial rifts in the South China Sea that involve China and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Taiwan also contests vast areas in the resource-rich region.

Other members of ASEAN are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III insisted ASEAN must craft such a "code of conduct" and then take it up with China as a group. Beijing opposes any arrangement that would force it to face a bloc of nations. China wants to negotiate with individual claimant countries over the disputes, something that will give it advantage for its sheer size.

The Philippines, backed by Vietnam, wanted Cambodia, ASEAN's steward this year, to make that sequence clear in a summit statement. Cambodia later issued a statement that avoided any mention of the contentious issue.

Cambodia's summit statement renewed ASEAN's call for the peaceful resolution to the issue of North Korea's nuclear program but completely ignored any mention of a rocket launch planned for later this month.
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ASEAN Still Searching for Consensus on South China Sea Dispute

"This is not necessarily a neat sequential process isn't it. Of course, ASEAN … first and foremost, must have a solid consolidated position."

Philippines' President Benigno Aquino III, right, talks with his Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario, left, during the retreat meeting at the 20th ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh Cambodia, April 4, 2012.
Philippines' President Benigno Aquino III, right, talks with his Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario, left, during the retreat meeting at the 20th ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh Cambodia, April 4, 2012.

Southeast Asian leaders say they will rush to reach a unified position on resolving competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. During the final day of a key Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders summit in Phnom Penh, negotiators struggled to reach a consensus on how to approach the disputes with China.

The maritime dispute has become increasingly heated in the last year. China claims ownership of much of the South China Sea, along with four ASEAN states, including the Philippines.

On Wednesday, ASEAN chair Cambodia issued a statement saying that the ten member states have agreed to "intensify efforts" on agreeing to a code of conduct, or CoC, on the dispute.

The question that ASEAN leaders sought to answer this week, is whether China would be involved in those discussions before the group had reached a consensus.

"It must be resolved peacefully in accordance with a rules-based regime and the new element that we've introduced is that the drafting of the CoC and the inclusion of the major elements should actually made by ASEAN internally before China is invited," stated Albert Del Rosario, the Philippines' secretary of foreign affairs.

ASEAN officials said Wednesday's pledge to expedite the process is an attempt to reach that consensus as soon as possible.

But the next scheduled meeting on the issue between China and ASEAN is only months away. On Wednesday, other ASEAN leaders said it was important to have a common position in any regional negotiations, but they also left the door open to China's involvement.

"This is not necessarily a neat sequential process isn't it. Of course, ASEAN … first and foremost, must have a solid consolidated position," said Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia's foreign affairs minister and a former ASEAN chairman. "But at the same time as we proceed, there will be constant communication through the ASEAN-China framework, so that whatever final position ASEAN comes up with will have benefited from having some kind of communication with China," he said.

It has been 10 years since ASEAN members first agreed in principle to reach a consensus on the South China Sea. Yet member nations still have failed in seeking a common approach to govern negotiations with China. The issue has become increasingly heated in the last year, particularly with maritime confrontations between China and the Philippines.

Although they failed again to reach a consensus, Natalegawa says this week discussions were a positive step.

"The big picture is one that must not be lost … now we have a situation where all are basically rushing to get the CoC off the ground. Which was not the case before. Now we have China wanting to come in and ASEAN wanting to finalize the CoC as soon as possible," said Natalegawa. "This is all good dynamics."

The next ASEAN leaders' summit is scheduled for November, also in Cambodia.
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Cambodia’s Hun Sen Proves A Feisty Asean Chair

By Martin Vaughan

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen seemed to forget in a Wednesday press conference that he was speaking as the chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc, and used the occasion to deliver a feisty harangue against his domestic political enemies.

Deriding his critics as “crazy analysts” and “stupid philosophers,” Mr. Hun Sen jarred awake an international press corps of about 200 reporters that had steeled themselves for sunny talk of regional harmony and bland pronouncements on such Asean perennials as customs cooperation.

While he didn’t mention any of his foes by name, he taunted one by mentioning several times an analyst with a “bald head.” People present suggested it might refer to Lao Mong Hay, a human rights activist and vocal critic of Hun Sen’s government who earlier in the week made comments to local news outlets about the powerful influence of China in the tiny Southeast Asian nation – a sensitive topic there.

Mr. Lao Mong Hay implied in his comments that the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Phnom Penh two days before the Asean summit was designed to pressure Cambodia to soft-pedal disputes over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea during talks this week. The subject of the South China Sea came up repeatedly during the Asean summit, with some Southeast Asian nations pressing for a common stance on conflicts in the resource-rich waters, while China has worked to keep the topic off of Asean’s agenda as much as possible.

Mr. Hun Sen also lambasted members of the opposition in the National Assembly who had complained, wrongly he said, of undue Chinese influence. “They are not able lead the country if they are involved in politics in such a silly way. . . Cambodia is not going to be bought by anyone,” he said.

Mr. Hun Sen’s outburst was all the more surprising given that this week’s summit represents a powerful opportunity for Cambodia to burnish its reputation on the international stage. Although it’s one of the smallest countries in Southeast Asia, with about 15 million people, it has seen its tourist industry and broader economy take off in recent years after the country stabilized following years of political chaos during and after the Khmer Rouge era. Each year a different Southeast Asian country takes over as Asean chair and hosts its key summits; despite his reputation as something of a maverick, many analysts had expected Mr. Hun Sen to focus attention on statesman-like issues such as regional stability and economic development rather than highlighting domestic political disputes.

Mr. Hun Sen’s the tirade went on for close to 30 minutes. Mr. Hun Sen handled a question on the Myanmar elections before another question on China set him going again against his critics. One hour and fifteen minutes after the press conference had begun, Southeast Asia’s longest-serving leader declared it was time for lunch.
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China stalls Cambodia’s first rice exports at border

Cambodia had made its first direct shipment of rice to China, an official revealed yesterday, but the test run, which was hoped to open the vast Chinese rice market to local exporters, was largely unsuccessful.

Golden Rice Co Ltd shipped 48 tonnes of milled rice to China earlier this year in a test of potential rice trading between the two countries, Sok Hach, the president of the company, said during a discussion on Cambodia’s export sector yesterday.

But the shipment had failed to meet inspection standards after arriving in the southern Chinese port city of Shenzhen, he said.

“It’s not a problem with the quality of Cambodia’s rice. It’s a paperwork problem on the Chinese side,” Sok Hach said on the sidelines of the meeting, held at the ASEAN-EU Business Summit in Phnom Penh.

“There’s something missing between the political level and technical level for the shipment.”

Without politically circumnavigating strict regulations, Cambodian rice had little chance of landing in Chinese bowls, an expert with Cambodia’s Agricultural Development International told the Post last year.

Chinese companies signed several memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with Cambodian rice millers last year but the agreements were political, not technical, Sok Hach said.

In mid-2011, Cambodian rice millers Soma Group and TTY Group signed MoUs for 20,000 tonnes of milled rice apiece, but the rice has yet to leave Cambodian ports.

Angkor Rice signed a 1,000-tonne MoU with China National Cereal, Oil and Foodstuffs Corporation in August.

Breaking into the Chinese market for rice had proved more problematic than markets such as the European Union, Sok Hach said.

When the company made a similar trial run for rice exports to Europe two years earlier, no such regulatory problems occurred, he said.

EU demand largely fuelled the Kingdom’s exports last year.

Despite the setback, Sok Hach claimed Cambodia would begin direct shipments to China this year.

“Cambodian rice will flood the Chinese market,” he said.
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