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Asean ‘To Clarify’ Meeting Amid Turmoil

The current political crisis in Thailand has raised doubts among some Asean members, namely Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, about Thailand’s readiness to host the upcoming summit.

In response to such concerns, the Asean Secretariat has issued a statement on its Web site saying that its secretary-general is “clarifying this matter with Thailand” and will issue a statement as soon as it has the answer.

Originally, the ASEAN leaders planned to gather in Chiang Mai in mid-December to discuss a variety of issues. While they will celebrate the new charter, the economy will be high on their agenda.

The head of states from the Asean countries plan to assemble in Chiang Mai on Dec. 15 for its annual summit. Asean Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan says the association plans to hold two celebrations: one for the full ratification of the charter by ten member states and the other for the entering into force of the charter.

Speaking to VOA Khmer by telephone from Bangkok, before the anti-government takeover of the two Bangkok airports, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan says this year’s summit will be a historical moment for Asean because for the first time it will be a ruled-based organization with its own legal personality.

“It will be a community which will certainly be very good as a platform for all these 10 countries in South East Asia to combine their strength to compete with the world and to integrate and interact with the international community,” he said.

Asean was established in 1967 in Bangkok by five original member countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Its goals are to promote economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to promote regional peace and stability. Other Southeast Asian countries, Brunei, Vietnam, Lao, Burma, and Cambodia joined later.

US Ambassador for Asean Affairs Scot Marciel told VOA Khmer in a recent interview that the charter reflects the political will among Asean countries to strengthen Asean as an institution. However he warns that the charter itself will not solve all the problems.

“It still is going to take a lot of political will and political efforts to build upon the charter, use the charter as a platform to achieve progress, to create a dispute settlement mechanism that works, to create a human rights body that actually contributes to the development of human rights situation in the region,” he said. “And a lot of work to overcome the inevitable protection pressure to move towards the integrated economic community by 2015.”

Dr. Sheldon W. Simon, a professor of Political Science at Arizona State University and an expert on Asean affairs, told VOA Khmer in a recent telephone interview that, with the charter, Asean becomes an international legal entity. He says the charter calls for the creation of three councils that are of particular interest.

“The economic council, the socio-cultural council, and the security council are the things I think will be particularly interesting to see what kind of substance the Asean ministers decide to put in those empty vessels at this point. And I would guess that would be a significant agenda item,” he said.

Aside from the celebration of the charter, Asean leaders will discuss the economy. Dr. Pitsuwan says he thinks that the 1997 economic crisis in Asia prepared Asean to face the current global financial crisis that starts in the US housing market. However he says it will eventually affect Asean countries because most of the economies are export economies.

“When the demand of the markets in the West, particularly in the US and in Western Europe decrease because of the economic turmoil, the export market of Southeast Asia are going to be affected,” he said. “So we will get the tail end of the impact eventually.”

Simon agrees that the Asean countries are in much better shape today than they were in during the financial crisis of 1997.

“The Asean countries are suffering like everyone else,” he said. “I think their primary concern is the radical decline of the US economy, because the United States has been their No. 1 or No. 2 markets for Asean products for many years. I think Asean hopes that the Chinese markets will somehow be able to step in and basically fill in the decline in their opportunity to export to the United States”

Asean leaders also plan to discuss ways to deal with natural disasters that have hit the region in the recent past. Issues of climate change, food security and renewable energy will also be discussed during the week-long summit.There will be other Asean-related summits including the Asean+3, and the East Asia Summit.