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ASEAN Meeting Focuses on Mekong River Area Development Issues - 2002-11-03

In Cambodia, Asian leaders have begun the first of three days of summitry dealing with terrorism, regional security and economic integration. Sunday's meeting focused on development issues in the Mekong River region.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen opened Sunday's meeting here in Phnom Penh noting that the Mekong River Sub-region, or GMS, was formed 10 years ago amidst conflict and cross-border tensions.

Since then, he said, the group has made great progress in bringing peace and development to the quarter-billion people living there. But speaking through an interpreter, the prime minister said major challenges remain. "We have a clear, undeniable obligation to promote sustainable development and poverty alleviation across the GMS," he said.

The group has focused for the last decade on providing roads, telecommunications and electrical power to the region. Now, the Cambodian leader notes more attention must be paid to protecting the environment and providing jobs and social services.

Across town Sunday, several hundred activists representing the underprivileged people of Southeast Asia gathered for an alternate meeting, called the Southeast Asia People's Festival.

One of the organizers, Toni Kasim, said the region is rich in resources, yet its people face increasing suffering because of the loss of natural resources and government policies that favor big business. "Our policies continue to be dominated by international agreements, which our governments enter into with little regard for the adverse effect that it has on the people of Southeast Asia. And we're tired of the situation. We're tired of the poverty. We're tired of the violations and, most of all, tired of being ignored by policy makers."

This group has drafted a document called the Mekong Declaration that calls on the region's leaders to address poverty and the lack of civil and political rights for many people in the region. While expressing sympathy for the victims of recent terrorist attacks, the document also calls on governments to refrain from using the war on terrorism as an excuse to restrict individual freedoms and repress political dissidence.

Organizers say they want to present the document to ASEAN leaders Monday, but have been refused. In addition, they say a rally for their cause was cancelled by local authorities who cited security concerns.

The three days of summitry move into high gear Monday with the opening of meetings between Southeast Asian leaders and China, Japan, and South Korea. Summits with India and South Africa are set for Tuesday.