Asean summit begins in Philippines

South-east Asian leaders move towards an EU-style bloc but democratic doubts remain.

    Gloria Arroyo has faced criticism
    of her rule in Cebu [AFP]

    Opening the three days of talks Arroyo said: "We want to advance the sense of community and our shared interests, to look after each other in terms of social justice, economic development and common security."

    Asean is looking to renew itself to counter economic pressure from India and China and has already agreed to bring forward the target date for a free-trade zone to 2015.

    Opening up

    "Asean is committed to expanding its trade area to create one of the world's greatest trading blocs," Arroyo said.

    "Click here for more on the Asean summit"
    It will also sign its first-ever convention on fighting terrorism, including provisions to make it easier to track suspects and money, share intelligence, and extradite wanted militants.

    However the biggest change is a plan to evolve how the disparate group of nations handles its internal diplomacy.

    The group will sign a blueprint, put together by veteran diplomats from across the region, for Asean's first-ever charter, aimed at turning the bloc into an EU-style entity with binding rules and regulations.

    The bloc has always acted in the past on informal consensus, leaving it open to criticism that it is little more than a "talking shop" incapable of getting unruly member states to fall in line.

    Domestic disturbance

    The violent protests against Arroyo in Cebu on Friday highlighted the complex internal issues some of the member nations have to address.

    Roll call: The leaders of (L-R) Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are present and correct [Reuters]

    Civilian supporters of Arroyo clashed with her opponents before the police arrived and dispersed the crowd.
    Renato Reyes, one of the protest leaders told Al Jazeera: "Is that the kind of hospitality that Mrs Arroyo wants to project? A hospitality based on the barrel of a gun."
    Al Jazeera's correspondent in Cebu, Marga Ortigas, says the protestors are crying out against lawlessness and what they call Arroyo's poor human rights record, with the number of extra-judicial killings under her government is in the hundreds.
    But Asean members have a policy of non-interference in domestic affairs despite international concerns over some governments.

    Security alert

    The issue has come up most often regarding the ruling generals of Myanmar, who have snubbed regional and international pressure to make concrete progress on its would-be "road map" for democracy and political reform.

    How Asean nations handle internal
    diplomacy is high on the agenda [AFP]

    Officials said Friday that the nations were in broad agreement that the charter could allow for the suspension of "misbehaving" members, but there is doubt whether the political will exists to punish fellow Asian neighbours.

    The bloc will meet Sunday and Monday with the leaders of Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

    In the meantime, Asean nations will also sign a declaration on protecting the rights of millions of migrant workers, who are essential for many of the region's economies.

    The summit was called off in December, shortly after the United States, Australia, Britain and other nations warned there could be an imminent terror attack on the resort centre of Cebu, where the summit is being held.

    Security remains a concern after three bombings in the southern island of Mindanao this week killed seven people, but officials say summit sites in Cebu are safe.

    Thousands of police were out in force on Saturday morning, many roads were closed and the majority of journalists in Cebu to cover the summit were kept well away from the venue.

    Several hundred demonstrators shouting anti-US slogans and carrying an Arroyo effigy protested in Cebu several miles from the summit site. Many shouted: "US number one terrorist!"

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and Agencies


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