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Keeping heads above global economic sea of troubles

Article published on the 2009-03-02 Latest update 2009-03-02 16:06 TU

South-east Asian leaders called on Sunday for urgent co-operation and reform to tackle the global financial crisis. They also pushed on with their plan to establish a European Union-style economic bloc by 2015. Security forces kept Thai anti-government protestors at bay as well as environmental activists who had come to lobby the leaders.

Leaders from the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) issued a joint statement on the third and final day of a summit that has been dominated by concerns about their export-driven economies.

They called for "bold and urgent reform of the international financial system" to tackle the worsening crisis, while agreeing to "stand firm against protectionism."

The question of protectionism is however a divisive one within Asean. Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and current head of Asean and Singapore Premier Lee Hsien Loong have repeatedly urged against protectionist tendencies but Malaysian Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has said it is normal during a crisis, to encourage people to buy local products.

Another method, say the Asean leaders, for keeping the worst-case economic scenario at bay, would be for developed and developing countries to show "more co-ordinated action."

The leaders also signed a declaration for setting up an Asean community within the next six years that is aimed at protecting the diverse bloc of around 570 million people from future economic turmoil.

Asean, has a combined gross domestic product of around 1.1 trillion euros, but is largely export-dependent.

Singapore is already in recession and Thailand's economy shrank in the last quarter of 2008.

Asean signed a free trade deal with Australia and New Zealand on Friday. Ministers on Sunday also signed an energy agreement to allow members to buy oil at a discount during times of crisis.

The economic crisis was overshadowed at times during the summit by human rights issues, even as Asean leaders attempted to launch a regional rights body that will be set up under the group's new charter.

Activists were angered Saturday when the premiers of Cambodia and military-ruled Myanmar barred two civic representatives from attending rare face-to-face talks with the ten Asean leaders.

The proposed rights body has also come under fire for being effectively toothless with no powers to investigate or prosecute abusers.

The bloc has been accused of failing to use its influence to effect change in Myanmar, which has been ruled by the army since 1962 and is accused of gross rights violations. And this year also, none of the leaders brought up the case of Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who symbolises the democracy movement in Myanmar. 

Nor was she mentioned in the summit's final statement issued by Abhisit.  He told RFI's Bach Thai Quoc and journalists Arnaud Dubus and Urs Morf, "Myanmar's process to democratic elections must be as inclusive as possible, and that means the release of political detainees and also having political parties actively participating... I think Myanmar understands that."

Asean is composed of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.