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ASEAN Annual Meeting Opens on Burma


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, opened its pre-summit meeting in Laos with free trade and regional security high on the agenda. But the issue of political reform in Burma has re-emerged as a major topic of discussion.

Senior Burmese officials say its internal affairs should not be discussed at next week's summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as it would break with ASEAN tradition of non-interference.

ASEAN members have been warning Burma however that its standing in the group may be affected if it does not address human rights concerns, including the continued detention of pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

There is also concern that Burma's military leadership last month replaced its moderate prime minister, with a hardliner on political reform.

Thai officials have said Burma might be mentioned in an official communiqué at the summit. But Burma says it is pursuing a roadmap toward democracy, vaguely outlined last year.

Burma this week released several hundred prisoners of a promised 4,000. They included prominent pro-democracy activists, but there has been no mention of whether the release will include Aung San Suu Kyi.

Meanwhile, ASEAN officials spent the first day of meetings polishing numerous draft resolutions, one of which is a plan to remove tariffs between its 10 member nations in six years.

Summit spokesman, Yong Chantalangsy, says the proposal, called Bali Concord Two, is strategically important for ASEAN.

"Bali Concord Two will strengthen ASEAN and will transform ASEAN from an association to a community," said Yong Chantalangsy.

ASEAN is also looking to expand trade in goods with the region's economic powerhouse, China. ASEAN official, Ong Keng Yong, says the group will sign a landmark framework agreement with China.

"It is the first part of the framework agreement towards creating an ASEAN-China free trade area that was agreed in Bali last year," he said.

He says agreements on services and investment will follow next. An ASEAN-China FTA will create a free trade area for nearly two billion people in Asia. ASEAN leaders are also to meet with the leaders of Japan, South Korea and India with an eye toward creating an East Asia economic community.

Regional security, disease outbreaks and international terrorism are also topics expected to be discussed during the two-day summit that ends Tuesday.

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