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Economics May Overshadow Human Rights, Burma at ASEAN Summit

Leaders of Southeast Asian countries are meeting in Thailand for the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The focus is expected to be on dealing with the global economic downturn rather than human rights issues and growing concerns about Burma.

Foreign and finance ministers from Southeast Asia began arriving Thursday in Hua Hin, Thailand, for the ASEAN summit.

At the top of the agenda is preventing further fall-out from the global financial crisis.

"As we know that this year is going to be a really difficult year for Southeast Asia, and East Asia in general, owing to the effect of the global financial crisis," said Professor Somphob Manarangsan, who teaches economics at Thailand's Thammasat University. "So, I think that preparation of Asia, particularly in this East Asian region, to deal with the increasing effect of the crisis is very important."

ASEAN finance ministers agreed last week to increase a shared emergency fund from $80 billion to $120 billion, most of it provided by China, Japan, and South Korea. A free-trade agreement between ASEAN, Australia, and New Zealand is to be signed at the summit.

Hundreds of activists and rights groups have converged on Bangkok and Hua Hin for the summit, demanding that human rights should be higher on the agenda.

ASEAN is forming a human rights body to address concerns in the region, such as Burma's military-run government. But ASEAN's Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told journalists Wednesday that once it is formed, the human rights body would likely act only on consensus, effectively giving veto power to each of the 10 member states, including Burma.

Nonetheless, Pitsuwan defended the formation of the body as a step forward and said there were other ways of pressing Burma to reform.

"Maybe some of the things that leaders are doing are not apparent and not in bold letters on your headlines," he said. "The fact that very little is achieved is not because no effort has been made, but because of the complication and complexity of the issue."

Burma's generals have kept an iron grip on the country for decades, suppressing democracy movements and imprisoning dissidents. The United Nations and the United States are urging Burma to release more than 2,000 political prisoners and allow free and fair elections.

Speaking Thursday at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Scot Marciel said the situation in Burma is having a negative impact on ASEAN's image.

"We hope the substance of the message will be to highlight that ASEAN as a whole feels strongly that Burma has not responded to either ASEAN or international calls for dialogue and progress, and, to continue to push and make it clear that this is a very high priority for ASEAN," he said.

ASEAN members Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia have recently been flooded with hundreds of Rohingya, a Burmese minority taking to boats to escape poverty and oppression in Burma. Thailand's military was accused of towing hundreds of the Rohingya back out to sea where many drowned. The situation is to be discussed on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit.

The annual meeting is the first since ASEAN adopted a new charter in December. It moves the group closer to the goal of forming a single market and community similar to the European Union.

Other ASEAN members include Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and Brunei.