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15.01.2007 International

Southeast Asian leaders form trade zone

By Associated Press
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Southeast Asian leaders agreed Saturday to turn their region into a free-trade zone by 2015 — a decade earlier than previously proposed — and create a tighter political bloc.

The 10-nation free trade zone will be adopted in two stages, with the six richer nations — including wealthy Singapore and oil-rich Brunei — starting the integration in 2010 and the others following later.

"ASEAN is committed to expanding its trade forum to become the largest in the world,” Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the host of the annual summit, said in opening the meeting, held under heavy security following three deadly explosions in the southern Philippines days before.

In addition, the leaders signed a counterterrorism pact legally binding their countries to share information, and allowing for joint training aimed at stemming terror and cross-border crime. They agreed on the protection of millions of migrant workers, and vowed to shift energy use from fossil fuel to biofuels.

In a major break with its consensus-based past, the 10-country body also agreed to discuss a plan for a more cohesive organisation able to sanction — or even expel — members that do not follow its rules. ASEAN's members are the Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, Brunei and Indonesia.

Southeast Asian countries have long voiced support for a joint charter, but the proposed addition of formal voting — instead of consensus — and the possibility of sanctions or expulsion was likely to be a hard one to accept, particularly for the ruling military junta in Myanmar, also called Burma.

A US-proposed UN Security Council resolution calling on Myanmar to release all political prisoners, speed up progress toward democracy and stop attacks against ethnic minorities was vetoed Friday by China and Russia.

Before the summit, ASEAN foreign ministers expressed concern over Myanmar"s slow progress toward democracy, but stopped short of backing the US resolution.

“I always look forward to good news,” Myanmar's ambassador to the Philippines, Thaung Tun, said of the veto.

The Philippines was on high alert for the summit, preceded by three bombings that killed seven people in the country's strife-torn south. More than 8,000 police and soldiers have been mobilised where the summit is being held, in the central Philippine port of Cebu.

But protesters broke through a police cordon Friday and headed toward one of the main summit venues before being stopped and arrested. Another large protest was held Saturday, with demonstrators burning Arroyo, President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in effigy.

China, Japan and South Korea, who will be participating in an expanded summit Sunday involving ASEAN's six “dialogue partners,” hope to join the Southeast Asian grouping's economic circle. The other dialogue partners are Australia, New Zealand and India.

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