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Asean opens with economic agenda

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Workers fix signs, Hua Hin, Thailand, Feb 09
Asean is putting economic concerns ahead of politics at its 14th summit

The 10-member Association of South East Asian nations (Asean) has started a summit meeting in Thailand.

They will discuss how to address the impact of declining global demand on their export-dependent economies.

This is the first summit since Asean implemented a charter making it a legal entity more like the European Union.

But human rights groups say there is still no mechanism for dealing with routine abuses inside Asean member states like Burma and Vietnam.

With some Asean members dependent on exports for as much as three quarters of national income, the global economic crisis hangs over this summit meeting like a thunder-cloud.

Rights rules?

But there is not much the member states can do to soften the blow - whereas human rights groups say they should be doing a lot more to give their new charter teeth so that fellow members can be held accountable for abuses of their citizens.

However the Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan argues the association needs a lot more time to evolve into a rules-based body like the European Union.

"Is Asean a super-region that can live up to all these lofty words in a year or two? We are not being realistic," he said.

"So don't expect miracles tomorrow. Our job is to hold Asean accountable to what it has committed itself to," he said.

Often dismissed as a mere talking shop, Asean is nonetheless attracting a lot more attention these days from global powers like China and the US.

The US appointed an ambassador to Asean last year for the first time, Scott Marciel, and he hopes to persuade it to be more proactive in dealing with rogue member Burma.

"I think there are some limits to what Asean can do. What we would hope is that Asean will use the access that it has, the connections it has within Burma, to push any way it can for some positive progress," said Mr Marciel.

Slowly, year-by-year, this association, encompassing 570 million people and some of the world's fastest-growing economies, is evolving - into what is not yet clear.

The EU, says Mr Surin, is an inspiration, but not a model.

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