|by Danny Kemp*
Southeast Asian ministers opened a key summit focused on the global economic meltdown yesterday at which they were expected to sign a major free trade deal with Australia and New Zealand.
Ministers will also discuss forming a long-awaited human rights body, but the annual meeting in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin is set to be dominated by efforts to shield their export-driven economies from turmoil elsewhere.
With the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) suffering plummeting demand from its developed trading partners, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called for cooperation to ride out the crisis. “We must not resort to protectionist tendencies at trying times,” Abhisit said in a speech to business leaders. “We must continue to believe in free and fair trade that shall remain the cornerstone of our ASEAN economic community.” The deal to set up a free trade area with Australia and New Zealand is the most comprehensive ever agreed by the bloc, which comprises nearly 600 million people. ASEAN is starting to feel the effects of the global economic crisis, with its financial hub Singapore facing its worst recession since independence and others including Thailand sliding in the same direction. Officials said the pact with the two Pacific countries was expected to be signed later Friday, nearly four years after talks on the deal first began. It covers trade in goods and services, investment, financial services, telecoms, electronic commerce, intellectual property, competition policy and economic cooperation. Australia is ASEAN’s sixth-biggest trading partner and New Zealand the ninth, while ASEAN collectively is Australia’s biggest overseas market. The agreement is part of a raft of measures mooted by the organisation to ride out the crisis. Leaders will sign a declaration on a roadmap for forming a European Union-style community by 2015 and discuss a 120-billion-dollar emergency fund agreed on by Asian finance ministers on Sunday. Foreign ministers discussed the fund on Thurs-day night and called for it to be implemented as a “matter of urgency” to fight the global downturn, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters. He said they agreed it should be completed “most desirably” before the 10 ASEAN leaders meet with their Chinese, Japanese and South Korean counterparts from April 10-12. That meeting was originally due to take place in December alongside the summit, but both were postponed because of political turmoil in Thailand. The ASEAN grouping, whose diverse members include a military dictatorship, an absolute monarchy, several young democracies and some communist countries, faces its perennially tricky problem of human rights. Foreign ministers are due to meet Friday on a human rights body due to be set up under ASEAN’s new charter, signed in December, but critics say it will be toothless because of the bloc’s policy of non-interference. The top problem in this department remains military-ruled Myanmar. Rights watchdogs urged the group again on Thursday to press the country’s generals to end rights abuses and introduce political reform. These abuses include the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya boat people, who hit the headlines earlier this year when Thai security forces allegedly abandoned hundreds of the migrants at sea. The ASEAN summit itself also faces accusations of lacking relevance because of the absence of major regional partners and key economic powers China, Japan and South Korea. They said they were unable to attend after the summit was delayed. ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.