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Southeast Asian Ministers Gather in Laos for Regional Meeting

Ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, are gathering in Laos to discuss topics ranging from terrorism and economic integration to non-aggression treaties with several regional neighbors. However, the issue of whether military-ruled Burma should take over the chairmanship of the organization is clouding the opening of formal talks.

Southeast Asian foreign ministers prepared to open their annual meeting Tuesday amid concerns over whether the government of Burma, also known as Myanmar, would bow to pressure from some members and decline the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, next year.

Lao government spokesman Yong Chantalangsy said Rangoon has promised to announce its decision in Vientiane. "In the ASEAN ministerial retreat in the Philippines, Myanmar informed everybody that Myanmar will brief all member countries, ASEAN and everybody, on this issue," he said.

A member of the Burmese delegation, Thaung Tun, told reporters on the eve of the meeting that his government did not wish to place ASEAN in a difficult position by insisting on assuming the chairmanship.

The parliaments of several ASEAN members have called on Burma to abstain from the chairmanship because of a poor human rights record and slow pace of democratic reforms. However, ASEAN officials have said they would leave it to the Burmese government to decide.

Two partners of the association, the United States and the European Union, have said they would boycott ASEAN meetings if Burma assumed the chairmanship.

During this week's meeting, New Zealand and Mongolia are due to sign a non-aggression treaty with ASEAN and Australia is expected to take steps in that direction.

Spokesman Mr. Yong says this is part of preparations for an East Asian summit later this year. "This time they will go into the details. Who should be the participants of the East Summit, and the format of the summit as well as the content and agenda," he said.

The ASEAN ministers are also to discuss regional security and intelligence-sharing in the fight against international terrorism. Later in the week, they are to host the Asia Regional Forum, which groups more than one dozen nations in Asia, America and Europe.

And the officials will discuss cooperation in managing natural disasters in the wake of the tsunami which killed an estimated one-quarter million people.