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Trade, Human Rights on Agenda as ASEAN Summit Opens

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Leaders of Southeast Asian nations are again gathering in Thailand for meetings expected to focus on regional integration and human rights issues. Security at the summit is tight to prevent embarrassing protests that forced the cancellation of meetings in April.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations opened its annual meetings Friday with traditional music and dance that organizers said had roots across the region.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told delegates that ASEAN had come a long way in promoting regional cooperation in everything from trade to emergency response. He said ASEAN should be proud of its achievements.

"ASEAN has delivered and thrived through the many global and regional challenges it has come to face with. What remains is the onus that lies on ASEAN to prove that it can implement whatever has been agreed, declared, or envisioned," said Mr. Abhisit.

The group of 10 countries on Friday inaugurates its first human rights body. The ASEAN intergovernmental commission on human rights has been criticized for being powerless against rights abusers such as member Burma.

But Mr. Abhisit says the body will help generate momentum to protect the people of Southeast Asia.

"It will also increase the comfort level of our ASEAN member states to be able to accept [a] more enhanced role of this body in the future," he said.

During three days of meetings Southeast Asian leaders will sign more than 40 agreements, many of them on trade.

More than 35,000 soldiers and police have been deployed in Bangkok and at the summit in Hua Hin to prevent protesters from disrupting the meetings.

The summit had to be canceled in April after anti-government protesters stormed the venue and leaders had to be evacuated by helicopter.

The Thai hosts have vowed to prevent a similar occurrence.

"Now this is the last chance and, it's the last chance also for Thailand, to show its leadership in ASEAN, if it has any leadership left," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Pavin says having the meetings in Hua Hin, the location of the Thai king's summer palace, should help prevent a repeat of anti-government protests.

The revered 81-year-old king has been hospitalized for more than a month with a lung infection, but the palace says he is slowly recovering.

ASEAN's members are Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.