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Regional Integration, Disaster Relief, Security Expected to Highlight ASEAN Meeting


Foreign ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations - ASEAN - are meeting in Singapore this week to discuss a range of issues, including progress toward ratifying a charter promoting regional integration. Ron Corben has details from VOA's South East Asia bureau.

ASEAN members agreed on the creation of a charter late last year. Among other things, it commits Southeast Asian nations to notions of democracy and human rights. It also sets out common rules for negotiations in trade, investment, environment and other fields, and aims to turn the region into a free trade zone by 2015.

Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo says Burma recently approved the charter and will likely formally announce its decision when regional foreign ministers meet Sunday. Only Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have not ratified the agreement.

Carl Thayer, a regional security specialist at the Australian National University, says the charter will be a key item on the foreign ministers' agenda.

"The foreign ministers are meeting at a time where they know they are working towards a summit where the real decisions are made by the heads of government and for the ASEAN charter to pass. So one of their major concerns will be to get progress reports on the four or five states yet to do so; Indonesia, the Philippines, being two notable ones," said Thayer.

Observers say the Philippine Senate could block ratification of the charter unless Burma's military releases the country's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest.

Singapore, which currently leads the regional bloc, says it is confident the charter will be ratified by the end of the year.

ASEAN foreign ministers are also expected to discuss disaster relief and management following the devastating cyclone and earthquake that struck Burma and China, respectively, in May.

ASEAN played a key role in brokering an agreement between Burma and the United Nations in a bid to speed up relief efforts.

Burma was criticized by the West and human rights groups for restricting access to the hardest hit areas and for refusing direct aid.

Carl Thayer, regional security analyst at the Australian National University, says ASEAN is likely to stand by its response and the agreement with the United Nations and Burma.

"ASEAN will have to be able to defend its record in providing humanitarian assistance to Burma after cyclone Nargis against Western charges that the Burmese government was late and responsible for an awful lot - they have to put a gloss on that in particular," he said.

The ASEAN foreign ministers are preparing to welcome North Korea as a regional partner when Pyongyang signs a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, seen as a significant symbolic step by ASEAN as a forum for dialogue on regional security issues.

ASEAN will also be looking at possible solutions to rising oil and food prices amid warnings inflation could threaten political stability.

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