Southeast Asian ministers yesterday finalized a free trade pact with China and a host of other accords to be adopted at a leaders summit, but touchy topics like the lack of democracy in Myanmar and Islamic unrest in Thailand were swept under the rug.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting was a prelude to a two-day summit starting Monday of the group's 10 leaders. They also will meet separately with the heads of governments from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
The summit is the first such international event for the isolated communist nation of Laos, whose prime minister joined thousands of compatriots early yesterday at a golden-spired temple in the capital to pray for a successful meeting.
"I and all the Lao people are making merit today for the prosperity of the nation and wish that Lord Buddha will bless us for the peaceful success of the summit," Prime Minister Bounnhang Vorachith told reporters.
Some 35 agreements are to be signed in Vientiane by the 16 countries including one on creating a free trade area between ASEAN and China by 2010 -- a market of nearly 2 billion people whose combined economies are worth more than US$2.4 trillion.
Agreements also will be signed to start negotiations for similar free trade areas with South Korea, Australia and New Zealand; South Korea will sign a treaty of amity and cooperation; ASEAN and India plan to sign an agreement on cooperation in political, economic, science, technology, health and cultural spheres.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Concerns over violence that flared up and killed 540 people this year in Thailand's Muslim-majority south have clouded the run-up to the conference. But the topic was not raised formally by the foreign ministers and "is not on the agenda" of the summit, Lao government spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy said.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has threatened a walk-out if the Muslim unrest is raised, saying the issue is domestic only. But Southeast Asian neighbors, especially Muslim-dominated Malaysia to the south, worry the violence could destabilize the region.
"If anybody raises the issue, it is up to Thailand to respond ... and say: `Don't worry this will not affect other ASEAN countries,'" Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid said.
Frustration over Myanmar's unfulfilled pledges to introduce democracy also threatened to intrude on talks, but that too was not raised during the ministerial meeting, Yong said.
"The meeting was to prepare for the summit. Why should they concentrate on one country? There was no discussion on Myanmar," he said.
To pre-empt criticism, Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan Win told a news conference Friday that the junta is committed to restoring democracy despite its ouster last month of a relatively moderate prime minister, General Khin Nyunt.
But he sidestepped questions on whether pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be freed from house arrest.
Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said Myanmar's statements were "positive."
"People were pessimistic" after Khin Nyunt's removal but "statements by Myanmar leaders heard lately seem to indicate there would be no backtracking," he told reporters.
He said the Myanmar issue would not be raised by other ministers unless Nyan Win himself volunteers to report on the situation.