Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Megawati urges security steps at ASEAN meeting

MALACCA STRAIT ASEAN members tend to stay out of each other's affairs, but the Indonesian president is pushing for an increased level of safety cooperation

REUTERS , JAKARTA

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri urged Southeast Asia yesterday to push forward a security community to battle international terrorism amid moves to prevent militant strikes on ships in the vital Malacca Strait.

The host of the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers alluded to the international embarrassment caused to the group by member Myanmar's repressive policies and urged the junta to embrace democracy.

"We in ASEAN have no reason to be complacent," she said in an opening speech that stressed the need to boost cooperation on security to address threats in a region struck by several deadly extremist militant attacks since the Sept. 11, 2001 strikes in the US.

"We must also be at the forefront in the fight against the most inhuman of multinational crimes: international terrorism," she told ministers, who will try to narrow differences on tackling militancy without diluting sovereignty.

The ASEAN Security Community was launched at a summit last year in Bali, months after nightclub bombings on the Indonesian tourist island killed 202 people and were blamed on al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah. It was the deadliest attack since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

littoral states

The Indonesian initiative on security is a leap for the group of kingdoms, communists, juntas and democracies that has long stood by a principle of non-interference in each other's affairs.

It envisions cooperation on maritime security, particularly in the Malacca Strait, through which pass one-quarter of the world's trade.

A day earlier, littoral states Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore set up a new task force to patrol the sea lane, but were careful to retain national commands and to voice opposition to US suggestions that it play a role in the channel.

The security pact would address defense cooperation and international peacekeeping missions, but without a formal pact or alliance since some ASEAN members are unhappy with an initiative that is seen as encroaching on individual states.

Megawati took note of those concerns.

"Contrary to the misgivings of many, we shall not form a military alliance nor conclude a defense pact, because that is not what an ASEAN Security Community is about," she said.

Any progress could be overshadowed by Myanmar's detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi since May of last year.

losing patience

That has tested the principle of non-interference and risks becoming an irritant again in this week's forum of Asia-Pacific foreign ministers that follows the ASEAN talks, when US Secretary of State Colin Powell is likely to voice displeasure.

With Myanmar due to take over the ASEAN chair in 2006 and to play host to regional meetings, the EU in particular has threatened to boycott some group meetings if Myanmar attends.

"We should be able to hold dialogue among ourselves openly and frankly even on internal or domestic issues that ... can have a severe impact on the region," Megawati said.

Western nations have imposed sanctions on Myanmar for keeping the Nobel peace laureate under house arrest.

In a sign ASEAN was losing patience, the bloc censured the junta last year in a historic departure from its long-standing policy on non-interference. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

Yangon may be warned this week that it may lose the ASEAN chairmanship in 2006 if it does not make satisfactory progress on its "road map to democracy", conference sources said.

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