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Last Updated: Monday, 29 November, 2004, 05:31 GMT
Asean speeds up free trade move
Laotian prime minister prays for success at the meeting
The event is the biggest ever hosted by Laos
Six South East Asian countries have agreed to speed up efforts to create a free trade zone in the region.

They will scrap tariffs between them by 2007, three years earlier than planned, Malaysian leader Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said at an Asean summit in Laos.

The other four states that make up Asean will follow in 2012.

The nations involved hope the move will improve their economic situation in the face of increasing competition from China, analysts say.

Asean member countries
Free trade zone from 2007

Joining in 2012
The 10 leaders are holding their annual summit in the Laotian capital Vientiane, where they are joined by representatives of China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Over half the world population is represented at the two-day gathering.

Security and the situation in Burma are also high on the agenda at the summit.

'Bad elements'

The US government warned last month that it had information of possible attacks on the Asean forum. Laos state-run radio said last week that "bad elements" might plot trouble.

In addition to tightening security, Lao authorities hope the meeting will give them a chance to showcase the country's tourism potential.

The agenda includes a free trade accord between South East Asia and China, and an anti-terrorism pact between Asean and Japan.

Momentum is also reportedly building for participants to break with Asean's tradition of non-interference in other members' internal affairs, and press Burma to introduce democracy.

Burma has recently appointed a new prime minister, who is thought to be even more hardline than his predecessor.

Burma has released several political prisoners, including former student leader Min Ko Naing, in what is being seen as an attempt to stem criticism at the forum.

Security is tight, with manned checkpoints blocking people from entering the capital from the rural and mountainous provinces. Tourists have been told to stay away, after officials said the capital did not have enough hotel rooms.

Laos is the victim of sporadic bomb attacks, which the authorities usually blame on "bad elements".

This is often a reference to the ethnic Hmong people, who fought alongside the US during the Vietnam War, and say they have suffered discrimination in Laos ever since.

Shadows over Asean summit
29 Nov 04 |  Asia-Pacific
US warns of bomb threats in Laos
22 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Asean: Changing, but only slowly
08 Oct 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Asia aims for 'common market'
08 Oct 03 |  Business
Country profile: Laos
01 Sep 04 |  Country profiles

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