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Myanmar forgoes ASEAN chair

July 26, 2005 14:56 IST
Myanmar agreed Tuesday to forgo its chairmanship of Southeast Asia's bloc next year to avoid a damaging Western boycott of the group's meetings, as its foreign ministers prepared an accord on joining forces during tsunamis and other catastrophes.

The US and European Union had demanded that military-ruled Myanmar either move toward democracy and release pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi or forfeit its turn at the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in late 2006.

Myanmar's Iron Lady

Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan Win and fellow ASEAN ministers decided during a retreat Tuesday in the Laotian capital that the junta would relinquish the post, a joint ASEAN statement said.

The chairmanship goes instead to next-in-line Philippines, that country's Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo said.

Nyan Win told colleagues that his government wanted to give its "full attention" to its "ongoing national reconciliation and democratization process," the ASEAN statement said.

"We agreed that once Myanmar is ready to take its turn to be the ASEAN chair, it can do so," the ASEAN ministers said in the statement.

The issue came to a head in Laos this week during the group's annual ministerial meeting that runs through Friday, followed by the ASEAN Regional Forum -- a security dialogue with 14 other governments with interests in the region, such as the US, EU, Russia and China.

ASEAN split over Myanmar

ASEAN's more rapidly developing countries had feared damage to their trade ties with the West if the chairmanship issue festered. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice skipped this week's meeting, sending a deputy instead, in what diplomats suspected could be a precursor to a full boycott.

Asia expert Larry Wortzel of The Heritage Foundation in Washington said that handing the chairmanship to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, would have been "foolish."

"Certainly Burma as chair would make it difficult for the US to focus its diplomacy on other matters of concern to the ASEAN states," Wortzel said.

Despite Myanmar's stated intention to focus on national reconciliation, Nyan Win snubbed the UN envoy who has tried to push those efforts forward since 2002.

Nyan Win refused to meet with UN envoy Razali Ismail during this week's six-day

conference in Laos, sending him a message that "he would be too busy," said Razali, who came to Vientiane specifically to meet with the foreign minister.

The ASEAN ministers were set to sign a pact later Tuesday to improve cooperation in emergency preparedness and to expedite customs procedures to ensure fast responses during tsunamis and other disasters.

Waves of destruction

ASEAN members Indonesia and Thailand were among nations hardest hit by the December 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Wary of relying too heavily on aid from other governments -- often with military involvement -- countries in the region want better local coordination of shipments of medicine, food and emergency supplies.

Laotian Prime Minister Bounnhang Vorachith, in a speech to the ASEAN ministers, called for greater regional cooperation in the energy sector given surging global oil prices.

Indo-Myanmar pipeline planned   

Hydropower dams could held reduce dependancy on oil, said Bounnhang, whose resource-poor country wants neighbors to invest in dams for its elaborate network of rivers.

The dams "would not only supply cheaper energy to our region than oil-based energy but also enhance closer relations," he said.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Later this week, Australia will sign a declaration of intent to join a nonaggression pact with ASEAN, warming ties with a region where it is seeking closer trade ties.

ASEAN has signed the pact with nations such as Russia, China, Japan and India. But Australia has long avoided it, saying it could conflict with its 54-year-old defense treaty with the United States. Australia also has engendered suspicion in Southeast Asia by declaring it would pre-emptively strike against terrorists on foreign soil.

US slams India over Myanmar   

The ASEAN nations are joined for this week's security forum by Australia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russia, South Korea and the United States. East Timor is set to become the forum's newest member.

Ian Mader in Vientiane, Laos
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