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Southeast Asian Foreign Ministers Prepare for ASEAN Summit

Southeast Asian foreign ministers are finalizing a free trade agreement with China and a score of other accords in preparation for a summit meeting in Laos beginning Monday. However, issues like stalled political reform in Burma and the unrest in predominantly Muslim southern Thailand are not on the agenda.

Lao government Spokesman Yong Chantalongsy says the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will adopt more than 20 agreements during their two-day summit and called it a major milestone for ASEAN.

"This marks the turning point leading to a realization of the ASEAN community by 2020," he said.

ASEAN leaders at their last summit in Bali, Indonesia resolved to turn ASEAN into a community in order to address challenges created by globalization and a changing world order. The spokesman says challenges to be addressed include what he called global uncertainties, terrorism, the increase in oil prices and the spread of communicable diseases.

In a first step, the leaders are to adopt a plan of action to bolster cooperation on security.

Foreign ministers are also preparing a series of summits with China, Japan, South Korea and, for the first time, Australia and New Zealand. Russia's foreign minister is also to make an inaugural appearance.

Russia and South Korea are to join ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, or TAC.

ASEAN Spokesman Jun Abad says the treaty aims to make the region a zone of peace.

"It [the treaty] is a set of principles that constitute a code of conduct of interstate relations in this part of the world," he explained. "Among these principles include the renunciation of the threat or use of force."

He says the treaty also promotes the peaceful resolution of disputes through a settlement council. Five other non-ASEAN nations have joined the treaty, including China, which along with several ASEAN members claims sovereignty over certain islands in the South China Sea.

Summit officials say the ASEAN leaders will not address the unrest in Southern Thailand or the lack of reform in military-ruled Burma because the topics are not on the agenda.

Thailand and Burma reject such discussions as interference in their internal affairs. Nevertheless, conference sources say the topics could come up during the numerous informal encounters and bilateral meetings scheduled over the two-day event.

Burma's foreign minister, Nyan Win, Friday sought to defuse criticism of his government by announcing that Rangoon's military government remains committed to democratic reform and will hold elections despite a recent leadership shakeup that entrenched hard-liners. He made the remarks as Burmese authorities released nine thousand prisoners, including several dozen political detainees.