SE Asia prepares historic charter

July 31, 2007 - 0:0

MANILA (AFP) -- Southeast Asian nations opened talks here Monday to approve a historic charter to bind the region's half billion people closer together, with new agreements on everything from tourism to terrorism.

Facing increased competition from China and India, and threats from militant insurgencies bubbling across the region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plans to create a fully integrated economic zone by 2015.
But lingering disputes over human rights, and the group's long tradition of keeping out of each other's internal affairs, have left key issues unresolved before the charter is formally adopted later this year.
Following group custom, ASEAN foreign ministers arrived in local Philippine shirts and sat down to the hard work of thrashing out a deal -- and smoothing over the disputes -- ahead of ASEAN's next summit in November.
""Our collective desire to bring social justice, economic opportunity and integrated security to the region is our common ground,"" Philippine President Gloria Arroyo said in her opening address, urging nations to finalize the deal.
""There are no short cuts or quick fixes,"" she said. ""I commend to you the important task of following through on the commitments that we have made.""
Diplomats said agreement had already been reached on 90 percent of the charter, which will transform ASEAN into a European Union-style grouping with rules and norms to which all 10 nations will have to adhere.
But 11th-hour talks over the past few days, often stretching into the wee hours of the morning, have failed to iron out bitter divisions that cut to the heart of how the bloc would operate under the new charter.
Fierce opposition from Myanmar scuttled initial plans for a regional human rights commission, and countries have still not agreed on a mechanism to punish or sanction those that do not abide by the new rules.
While diplomats hope the new legal entity will give ASEAN greater sway over the international community, the group has also been embarrassed by its failure to exercise influence over member state Myanmar.
The ruling junta has flouted calls to free Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and move swiftly to restore democracy, and foreign ministers used an informal dinner meeting on Sunday to take Myanmar to task.
""I want to say that I was not the only speaker,"" Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said after the meeting. ""There was frustration.""
Analysts say the inability to get Myanmar to move forward goes to the heart of the issue of the new charter, with nations unable to agree on a voting mechanism which would be able to compel reluctant members to follow the rules.
Arroyo made no direct mention of the disputes in her address, and instead put the focus on the bloc's plan to create a massive free trade zone and transform the region into a unified economic powerhouse.
""An ASEAN community is clearly going to be anchored first and foremost on economic integration with a focus on social justice and raising the standard of living of the poor in the region,"" Arroyo said.
""It is about creating a dynamic force in Asia to maximize the benefits of globalization,"" she said.
The bloc has also agreed on a five-year outline to renew its nuclear non-proliferation treaty aimed at keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of rogue states and groups.
The foreign ministers wrap up talks on Tuesday before a wider regional security meeting known as ARF later in the week that will bring in the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Australia and others.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam