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ASEAN Ministers Not Receptive to Regional Peacekeeping Force - 2004-03-04

ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Vietnam have given a cool reception to an Indonesian effort to create a regional peacekeeping force.

The 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations was originally formed to promote economic cooperation in the region, and that is still the core of its focus.

At a recent meeting held on the Indonesian island of Bali, Jakarta suggested the group create a peacekeeping force. The idea was a reflection of the increasing security challenges facing the region from terrorism and violent separatist movements.

But the plan has been given a chilly reception by ASEAN foreign ministers meeting this week in Vietnam. Singapore's Foreign Minister, Shanmugam Jayakumar, said he didn't believe ASEAN should be involved in security or defense issues. Opponents of the plan say a peacekeeping force would run counter to one of the group's most important tenets: non-interference in each other's affairs.

Hadi Soesastro, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, says the group's aim of creating a community cannot be achieved without taking cultural and political ends into account as well as economics.

"The reason why we have defined this ASEAN community as resting on three pillars is exactly because we do not think ASEAN can continue if it only focuses on just one aspect," he said. "Political, security cooperation is as important, so is social and cultural cooperation. It cannot be simply focused on economics alone."

ASEAN's critics accuse the organization of being toothless. They say that by following the principle of non-interference the group has failed to condemn terrible human rights abuses by some of its members, notably Burma.

Southeast Asia is facing a host of new, transnational, security problems, most notably terrorism. The regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah may have only carried out attacks in the Philippines and Indonesia, including the Bali bombing, but security experts believe it draws resources from throughout the region, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia.

Analysts say it will be impossible to face the security challenges posed by groups like Jemaah Islamiyah without a coherent regional security plan, whatever form that might take.