Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is among African and Southeast Asian leaders meeting in Malaysia this week aiming to draw up a plan to fight poverty and bolster economic ties.
The controversial president's presence at the gathering on the resort island of Langkawi -- which comes as his own country suffers hyper-inflation and chronic food shortages -- is already raising eyebrows.
But Malaysia's foreign minister said the meeting, which will be hosted by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was not about politics.
"I have heard that there have been some rumblings, but we must remember that the Langkawi dialogue is to discuss development," Syed Hamid Albar told the New Straits Times.
"It's a non-political forum. We will not be discussing politics but socio-economic development," he said. "Whichever country is in need of development and can learn from the experience of others, they should be encouraged to participate."
The gathering, dubbed the Langkawi International Dialogue, will bring together 16 African and Southeast Asian leaders and more than 260 delegates.
Mugabe established an independent Zimbabwe in 1979 but has since come to be regarded by many as a tyrannical dictator whose rule has been marked by intimidation, violence, fraud and robbery.
The octogenarian president has also been blamed for leading the once-model economy into ruin, with inflation in the southern African nation running at more than 3,700 percent.
The Malaysia forum is the brainchild of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and was launched in 1995 in an attempt to foster close economic and political relations with poor but resource-rich African countries.
Mahathir, who retired in October 2003 after 22 years in power, was an ally of Mugabe's, with the two men sharing a love of anti-Western rhetoric stoked by a history of British colonialism in both countries.
Prime Minister Abdullah was to officially declare the summit open with a speech scheduled late yesterday that would focus on "workable solutions" to ending poverty, the state Bernama news agency said.
Abdullah's speech would outline ideas on how "we should move forward and tackle problems faced by the African states," Syed Hamid said, adding that an ambitious plan was to be produced at the end of the three-day summit.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said he hoped that the Malaysian experience could inspire African nations to end crushing poverty.
"We have built excellent warm relations [with the participating nations] but how much they can implement [anti-poverty programs] is actually up to them," he stressed.
Other leaders taking part in the meeting include Lesotho's prime minister, the Namibian and Zambian presidents and King Mswati III of Swaziland.
Leaders from four Asian countries -- Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Thailand will also attend for the first time. A 1,200-strong police task force has been deployed in and around the stylish resort.
Meanwhile, state-owned oil and gas company Petronas has received an invitation from the Ugandan government to explore possible gas and oil fields in the African nation.
Bernama said that the invitation had been relayed by Uganda's Deputy High Commissioner to Malaysia's, Nimisha Madhvani, who is also attending the anti-poverty summit.
She said that a possible "bilateral agreement" on exploration could be concluded soon, but did not give further details on the matter.
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