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ASEAN Leaders Sign Agreement to Form Economic Union

Ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, have signed an agreement to create a regional economic union by the year 2020. The agreement was signed Tuesday at the opening of the ASEAN summit meeting in Bali, Indonesia.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri called the free trade zone accord a "watershed in the history of ASEAN," and said it will permit the children of the region to live in peace, stability and shared prosperity.

The accord is to allow the free flow of goods, services and capital in 17 years. Tariff barriers within ASEAN have already been reduced in the past 10 years from 12 percent to an average of two percent.

President Megawati said the accord establishes a community to be supported by three pillars of cooperation: security, economic and social. "Concerning the first pillar, ASEAN Security Community, we decided to explore effective ways of enhancing our political and security cooperation and to establish modalities for the ASEAN Security Community," she said.

The ASEAN leaders also pledged to continue the fight against international terrorism, which was widely dismissed as a threat in the region until the Bali bombings one year ago. Since the bombings, scores of individuals with suspected ties to terrorist networks have been detained across the region.

The crackdown by the Burmese government earlier this year on the pro-democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi also drew attention.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and senior party leaders were detained and party offices were closed after a clash with pro-government supporters.

But ASEAN leaders focused on the recent transfer of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from detention at a military base to her home, calling it a positive development.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said this vindicates ASEAN's approach to Burma (Myanmar). "It's a vindication of ASEAN's belief that the best way to achieve actual results, though they may not be 100 percent at this time, is through dialogue and consultations with the Myanmar government," he said.

However, Japan indicated it was not satisfied with the approach. The spokesman for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who Tuesday met with Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt on the margins of the summit, noted that Japan has suspended its non-emergency aid to Burma since the crackdown and would like to see a timetable for democratic reforms promised by the military authorities.

The ASEAN leaders also called for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and for a peaceful resolution of the tensions over North Korea's announced intention to resume its nuclear weapons program.

The leaders of China, Japan, South Korea and India are playing active roles at this summit and are to meet with the ASEAN leaders on Wednesday.