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ASEAN summit faces numerous challenges

At what was meant to be a celebration, Southeast Asian nations will have to deal with a global economic crisis and human rights issues.

February 28, 2009|Charles McDermid and Jakkapun Kaewsangthong

HUA HIN, THAILAND — Selling snacks and cigarettes from a shack near the posh Sheraton Hua Hin Resort & Spa, Nayom Pai-Sri had seen his share of bigwigs, but nothing like the processions that rolled through Friday.

There was the nine-car motorcade of Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen, then Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, followed by the ruling generals of Myanmar and even the sultan of Brunei. The heads of state had arrived in sleepy, seaside Hua Hin for this weekend's annual meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

"I never see rich people over here because they only stay in the hotel," said Nayom, a father of two who makes less than $20 a day. "Most of my customers work at the hotel."

This year's summit was meant to be a celebration: the enactment of a landmark charter passed in late 2007 that would, among other things, establish a human rights body and pave the way for the 10-nation alliance to become a single-market European Union-like bloc by 2015. Instead, this year's leaders face a raft of thorny issues.

There's an armed border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over an ancient Hindu temple, an onslaught of rights complaints about recent detentions in Myanmar, and the question of what to do with the ethnic Rohingya boat people who have fled Myanmar and arrived stateless in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Most important, member states will attempt to agree on a coordinated response to the worldwide economic crisis in an effort to shield the region's nearly 600 million mostly impoverished people.

Facing an impending global recession, the export-driven region may be forced to put differences aside.

No ASEAN member realizes this better than this year's host, Thailand. For months, Thai officials have been describing the summit as a new dawn for ASEAN.

Speaking recently to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said of the alliance, which was established in 1967: "Forty years on, ASEAN has come a long way and is on course to realize our hope and dreams."

The summit, originally scheduled for December in Bangkok, was postponed because of street protests there and moved to Hua Hin.

The turmoil of the last year in Thailand, which included street violence and the seizure of Bangkok's two airports by protesters, dealt a devastating blow to the country's image as a tourist destination and subsequently the Thai economy. The events prompted nonmembers China, Japan, South Korea and India to withdraw from the meeting, generating criticism from some delegates who had expected to seek financial aid from them.

This week, forces aligned with deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took to the streets in a bid to upset the summit. The government deployed 5,700 police officers to provide security for the meeting, according to a national police official.

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McDermid and Kaewsangthong are special correspondents.

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