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Southeast Asian Leaders' Summit Opens


Development, trade and security issues will be high on the agenda as Southeast Asian leaders open their annual meeting. VOA's Heda Bayron reports from the central Philippine city of Cebu, where some serious work will be taking place behind the visible pomp and protocol.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, delayed by a month because of a typhoon in December, aims to push the region closer to the goal of a common market by 2015.

As Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo told journalists, this year's summit could result in a revitalized, more cohesive organization.

"While we seek to build a more secure community, we are also intent on a community that will have stronger understanding of its identity, a community that is ever more determined to be bound by its rules and its commitments," he said.

The leaders will discuss lowering trade barriers, and the free flow of services and of workers within the ASEAN Free Trade Area.

Romulo says the leaders also will sign agreements on development and counterterrorism. The ASEAN foreign ministers on Friday drew up a draft agreement on sharing counter-terrorism intelligence.

Terrorism is on everyone's mind here. There were terrorist threats when the summit was first scheduled in December. Many people in the region think that those threats, as much as bad weather, pushed Manila to delay the gathering.

There were three deadly bombings Wednesday on Mindanao, south of here, which might have been an attempt by Muslim extremists to embarrass the Philippine government during the ASEAN meetings.

Airspace above the summit venues has been designated a no-fly zone, and police in riot gear are very much in evidence on the roads leading to the venues.

The government leaders also will consider a blueprint for an ASEAN Charter. Officials say a charter would make the grouping's agreements binding on members, whereas they are now only advisory.

This could lead to changes in the way ASEAN works. Members of the group, for example, have strongly criticized Burma for failing to keep its promise to move toward democracy, and Romulo says ASEAN will continue to press Burma's military leadership on the issue. But the ruling generals have so far ignored the criticism with impunity.

With a charter, ASEAN would have enforcement powers, and member nations that ignore resolutions could be punished.

The leaders also will raise these issues and others - including energy security - when they meet Sunday and Monday with their counterparts from Japan, China, South Korea, India, East Timor, Australia and New Zealand.

In addition to the Philippines and Burma, ASEAN comprises Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand.

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