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Terrorism, Burma Human Rights Issues to Top ASEAN Agenda

Asian leaders are gathering on Indonesia's Bali Island to discuss trade and the war on terrorism. The recent crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Burma is also expected to be a major issue.

Asian leaders open the annual ASEAN summit Tuesday, The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is meeting here one year after the Bali bombings, seeking to show defiance in the face of international terrorism.

The threat of terrorist attacks was widely dismissed in the region until the nightclub bombing last October killed 202 people.

ASEAN leaders have increased cooperation on security since the Bali bombings. Scores of individuals have been arrested on charges of plotting or aiding terrorist groups. Seventeen people have been convicted by Indonesian courts for responsibility in the Bali blasts. Three of them are facing the death penalty.

But a consortium of civic groups, holding its annual forum on the margins of the ASEAN summit, has issued a statement declaring that the war on terrorism is also undermining civil liberties in the region.

The head of the Altsean-Burma dissident group, Debbie Stothard, says there is a disturbing trend among ASEAN governments to use the war on terrorism to repress human rights and their advocates.

"ASEAN governments have hardened repressive laws," she said. "They have justified the use of violence against innocent civilians in the name of national security and the war on terrorism. It is turning into a war for terrorism."

The activists note that dozens of alleged terrorists have been detained in various Southeast Asian countries under emergency security laws that allow them to be held without charge and deny them legal representation. They say such actions are creating fear and resentment that are the seeds of terrorism.

The activists also criticize ASEAN nations for failing to respond vigorously the repression in Burma, especially the crackdown on the pro-democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi four months ago. She and senior leaders of her party have been arrested and most party offices have been closed.

ASEAN leaders have expressed concern over the lack of progress toward political reform in Burma, but they continue to advocate engagement with the military government, saying isolating it only hurts the Burmese people.

An analyst with Indonesia's Center for Strategic and International Studies, Landry Subianto, notes that ASEAN has been unable to deal with issues like Burma and human rights abuses in the region because it was founded to prevent conflict among its members.

"So far, the only shared political platforms we have [in ASEAN] is non-interference and non-intervention," he said. "And obviously the political scene in Southeast Asia is now changing and it gives a new push for the governments actually to change."

During the summit, ASEAN leaders are to study the creation of a regional security community that would deal with international security threats, though not internal ones. They are also to examine a proposed timeline to reduce trade barriers in two years and create an economic union of 500 million people by the year 2020.

They are also to meet with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, and India as part of a series of steps leading to free trade agreements between ASEAN and these regional powers.