News / Asia

Conflict and Controversy Overshadow Unity at ASEAN Summit

Heads of states and governments of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations pose for a group shot during the opening ceremony of the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 7, 2011
Heads of states and governments of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations pose for a group shot during the opening ceremony of the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 7, 2011
Brian Padden

The prime ministers of Cambodia and Thailand exchanged heated words over their border conflict at the ASEAN summit and Burma received an endorsement in principle to head the organization in 2014, despite its poor human-rights record.   

Since February, nearly 30 people have been killed and thousands displaced in both Thailand and Cambodia because of ongoing military clashes between the two countries over a border area near a historic temple.

Sunday, the leaders of Thailand and Cambodia held separate news conferences after trading accusations earlier at the ASEAN Summit about which country is responsible for the conflict.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said it was Cambodia that began this conflict by stationing troops in the disputed area in violation of a bilateral agreement both signed in 2000, and he says they have prolonged the conflict by trying to get international organizations involved.

"But the problems that have occurred in recent times I think demonstrate the determination of Cambodia to internationalize the issue," Vejjajiva said.

He says Thailand and Cambodia should resolve the conflict without the intervention of the United Nations or the International Court of Justice, and while Thailand agreed Friday to allow in Indonesian observers to the conflict area, he says, that agreement should be linked to the removal of both Cambodian and Thai troops from the disputed region as well.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Thailand must formally agree to allow in Indonesian observers before further negotiations could continue.  He also rejected Thailand's demand Cambodia withdraw its military from the conflict area.

He says the withdrawal of Cambodia armed forces from their territory is not acceptable.

At the end of a two day ASEAN Summit in Jakarta that was supposed to be about trade and economic development in the region, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met with the leaders of Thailand and Cambodia to try to resolve the border conflict between them.

He said he offered to get everyone to agree to create a package of solutions, so both sides can agree to the same timeline.

The Thai and Cambodian prime ministers agreed to extend the foreign ministers' time in Jakarta to further discuss these issues. Both will meet Monday with ASEAN Chairman and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

Other ASEAN leaders expressed frustration the armed dispute between members was threatening the organization's credibility and taking away from achievements made at the summit on regional economic integration.  

ASEAN Leaders also approved in principle Burma's request to take over the organization chair in 2014.  President Yudhoyono said ASEAN's approval of Burma's request is contingent on that country making continued democratic progress.

Human-rights groups voiced objections to Burma's bid. Military led Burma is under Western sanctions for serial human-rights abuses.   

In 2005 Burma was pressured to give up the leadership of ASEAN after the United States and the European Union threatened to boycott the organization. ASEAN groups Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Philippines and Burma.  

Other issues discussed at the summit include food and energy security, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, human trafficking, and East Timor's membership bid.

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