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Burma, S. China Sea Dominate ASEAN Summit Discussions

Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN Foreign Ministers from left, K. Shanmugam of Singapore, Surapong Tovichakchaikul of Thailand, Pham Bihn Minh of Vietnam, Hor Namhong of Cambodia and Lim Jock Seng of Brunei wait for their counterpart from M
Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN Foreign Ministers from left, K. Shanmugam of Singapore, Surapong Tovichakchaikul of Thailand, Pham Bihn Minh of Vietnam, Hor Namhong of Cambodia and Lim Jock Seng of Brunei wait for their counterpart from M
Irwin LoyVOA

This week leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are meeting in Phnom Penh, where competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, Sunday's election in Burma and North Korea’s planned satellite launch are dominating discussions.

Burma’s political reform process has been a high-profile objective for the 10 member bloc of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Last November the group agreed to grant Burma the chair of the bloc in 2014 on the basis of its democratic reforms.

After Sunday’s by-election, which Burma had invited ASEAN representatives to observe, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa praised the vote’s execution.  

“As far as Indonesia is concerned, this is a very good development. An important step in further making irreversible the democratization process in Myanmar," Natalegawa said.

This year's chair, Cambodia, released a statement calling the election "successful" and "peaceful" and urged the international community to consider lifting longstanding economic sanctions.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said he was "encouraged" by the vote in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"We hope that this will contribute to a more effective integration of Myanmar [Burma] in the global community and Myanmar and ASEAN will be able to work on other issues that will be more meaningful and contributing to the well-being of the people of Myanmar, rather than being stuck on the issue of instability and lack of political reconciliation in Myanmar," he said.

During the leaders summit this week, territorial disputes in the South China Sea are also expected to be a high-profile issue.

Four ASEAN members claim rights to parts of the South China Sea, along with China and Taiwan.

At a meeting of foreign ministers on Monday, the Philippine's secretary of foreign affairs, Albert del Rosario, urged his counterparts to take concrete steps forward on a collective code of conduct, or COC, for dealing with the dispute. Del Rosario said he hopes ASEAN will formulate its stance by the end of the year, but acknowledged the group remains divided over how to proceed.

“I think the difference of opinion lies in the fact that we are advocating a draft of the COC be prepared before we sit down with China," del Rosario said. "Others are taking the view that China should be invited to come in for the initial discussions.”

ASEAN ministers also expressed concern over North Korea’s announcement of a planned satellite rocket launch. Observers have said the rocket trajectory could see it head south near Philippines, Australian or Indonesian territory.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa called on North Korea to refrain from the launch.

"We are obviously deeply concerned by the prospect of the launch of the satellite, both in terms of the safety and security issues," Natalegawa said. "But most of all, and not least, in terms of the disruption it is causing to the conditions conducive for the resumptions of six party talks."

Monday’s meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers is ahead of Tuesday's main leaders' summit.

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