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Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 03:34 GMT 04:34 UK
Market jitters mar Asean meeting

More than 300 Thai policemen are on standby in Chiang Mai
Economics ministers from member countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) are meeting in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai amid growing fears that the region is slipping back into financial crisis.

The meeting follows steep falls on Asian stock markets and concern over the political stability of several member states, notably Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines.

Ministers want to sound a note of reassurance, signalling their intention to deepen regional co-operation and tackle the problems facing them.

But our South East Asian correspondent, Simon Ingram, says even before discussions begin in earnest such a message looks certain to be blurred by doubts over the issue of free trade.

Trade barriers

Asean is committed to liberalising trade in most areas by two 2003, but that objective suffered a blow earlier this year when Malaysia was given clearance to maintain tariff barriers temporarily so as to protect its national car industry.

Asean members
Indonesia
Thailand
Philippines
Brunei
Cambodia
Laos
Malaysia
Burma
Singapore
Vietnam
That decision raised fears that other members would demand exemptions of their own while sending a highly negative signal to foreign investors who already see more tempting opportunities in China, Korea and elsewhere.

Finding a unified Asean voice on this and other issues is harder than ever given the vast economic disparities within the organisation's ranks.

At one end is high-tech Singapore, at the other are the emerging relatively primitive economies of Laos, Cambodia and Burma.

Achieving a meeting of minds here will be no easy matter.

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See also:

04 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Asean rules out Burma intervention
24 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Reform call tops Asean agenda
26 Mar 00 | Business
Asian fund plan dropped
10 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
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