Mon, Jul 05, 2004 - Page 5 News List

ASEAN starts showing some teeth

FORCEFUL In closed-door talks last week, delegates hammered out the wording for a plan to promote regional maritime safety and intelligence exchanges

REUTERS , SINGAPORE

US Secretary of State Colin Powell performs a version of the Village People hit YMCA at the conclusion of Asia's largest security meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday. Powell took to the stage, dressed as a construction worker, with other unidentified US diplomats to deliver their rendition of the 1970s hit song to an audience of ASEAN Regional Forum delegates.

PHOTO: AP

It's not every day that US Secretary of State Colin Powell dresses up as a construction worker and belts out the 1970s disco hit YMCA.

Powell's showstopping performance at the traditional closing dinner of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum would seem to be the highlight of what is usually a lackluster event.

But an unsung deal this year to put flesh on the bones of an ASEAN Security Community could mark a significant step by a group long seen as ineffectual -- ruled by the principle of non-interference and a readiness only to move at the speed of its slowest member.

In their closed-door talks last week, the 10 members of ASEAN hammered out the wording for the plan that will be presented to leaders for ratification at a summit in Laos in November.

They are looking at measures that will include regional maritime safety and intelligence exchanges, but have discarded a proposal by Indonesia for a Southeast Asian peacekeeping force.

"It would have been catastrophic to have had no agreement on the security community. This is an important development," said ASEAN expert Ralf Emmers at the Singapore Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies.

"The security community was Indonesia's idea and so a more watered-down version may be a disappointment to Jakarta," he said. "But it's one of those stepping stones."

ASEAN comprises Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

"We finished the plan of action," ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong told reporters. "It's a more practical version of an idealistic original that focuses on doables and aims to deliver results."

Ong did not give details of where changes or compromises had been made in sensitive defense cooperation.

"There are, as you might expect, disagreements on how far to go," said former ASEAN secretary general Rodolfo Severino. "But if you read closely, there are some new things like defense cooperation and opposition to weapons of mass destruction."

Almost certainly, Jakarta's suggestion of a peacekeeping force fell by the wayside as too intrusive, but analysts say the principles embodied will sharpen the teeth of ASEAN, which groups strategically sensitive nations.

The mere fact the US Secretary of State flies halfway round the world every year to make sure not to miss the annual gathering is evidence of ASEAN's significance.

While the group has decided not to bare its teeth -- at least not this year and not in public -- on one of its most intractable problems, it appears to be becoming quietly forceful behind closed doors.

ASEAN has been jolted by a US threat to downgrade its presence at the ASEAN Regional Forum if it does not do something about army-ruled member Myanmar, which has become an international pariah over its suppression of the pro-democracy movement led by detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

With Yangon due to take over the ASEAN chair in 2006 and to play host to regional meetings, the EU has said it may not attend a two-yearly summit with Asia in Hanoi in October without progress by the junta to free Suu Kyi.

The US has made clear the Secretary of State will not attend the ASEAN Regional Forum in Myanmar without political liberalization, and is likely to be represented by an official no higher than a staffer from a regional embassy.

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