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Southeast Asian Leaders Chart New Direction for Regional Group


Southeast Asian leaders have wrapped up their annual group summit by setting forth a new direction for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. As VOA's Heda Bayron reports from the Philippine city of Cebu, the leaders of ASEAN's 10 member-nations also focused on terrorism, trade and - informally - Burma's stalled democratic reform process.

The 10 Southeast Asian leaders formally laid out a new course for the future of ASEAN Saturday. They signed the outline of a charter that would transform the consensus-based organization into a rules-based grouping similar to the European Union.

The charter would create a mechanism for members to settle disputes and impose sanctions. It would also allow for the expulsion of member-states that violate association agreements and resolutions.

Burma, for example, could face punishment if it continues to renege on a pledge it made to its fellow member-states to implement democratic reforms. In informal discussions here with Burmese Prime Minister Soe Win, several ASEAN leaders again pressed for his government to move more quickly towards democratization.

Government officials will now begin work on a detailed charter, which is due to be presented at the next ASEAN summit, scheduled for Singapore at end of this year.

The leaders say drawing up an ASEAN charter is an important step in keeping the group relevant and cohesive as it pushes to create a common market in the region by 2015.

Trade was another major topic for the leaders, who pledged to accelerate efforts toward an expanded Asian free-trade area, which would include such neighbors as Japan, China, South Korea and India.

The leaders also called for a resumption of the stalled "Doha round" of World Trade Organization talks. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, addressing her fellow leaders Saturday, gave a ringing endorsement to free trade.

"At a time when the Doha round is faltering, ASEAN wants to stand up and proclaim its support for keeping the doors of global trade open. And finally, ASEAN is committed to expanding its trade area to create one of the world's greatest trading blocs," she said.

Acknowledging that the region is beset by separatist movements and Islamic militancy, the leaders also signed a legally binding agreement on counter-terrorism. The agreement allows for easier prosecution and extradition of terrorist suspects, and greater exchange of intelligence among members.

ASEAN was established in 1967, and now counts as members the Philippines and Burma, Brunei, Indonesia Malaysia and Singapore, and Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.