NKorea, Myanmar loom over Asian security forum

Bangkok (AFP) July 17, 2009
North Korea’s nuclear programme and Myanmar’s rights record are set to dominate Asia’s largest security forum next week, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes her debut at the meeting.
Foreign ministers at the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in the Thai resort island of Phuket are also expected to discuss the region’s economy and joint action on tackling swine flu.

Thousands of troops and police will throw a ring of steel around the isle for the July 19-23 meeting to prevent a repeat of anti-government protests that forced the abandonment of a separate Asian summit in Thailand in April.

“During the meetings ministers will exchange views on the situation on the Korea peninsula,” Thai foreign ministry official Vitavas Srivihok said last week.

But he said North Korea’s foreign minister had declined to attend and would instead send an ambassador at large to the meeting of 10 ASEAN members plus 16 dialogue partners including the United States, China, Japan and South Korea.

Regional tensions have soared since the North quit six-nation talks on nuclear disarmament and vowed to restart its atomic weapons programme in the wake of its recent defiant nuclear test and missile launches.

Foreign ministers from all six parties will be in Phuket except North Korea.

The US State Department has been coy on whether Clinton would meet any North Korean delegates in Phuket, but spokesman Ian Kelly said last week that “I imagine that North Korea will be a topic at the ASEAN meeting.”

Clinton, who leaves Washington for Mumbai on Thursday, will come to Phuket from India. She travelled to Asia in February on her first trip as secretary of state, visiting Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China.

In Phuket, Clinton will hold an unprecedented three-way meeting with her counterparts from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to discuss health and environmental issues concerning the Mekong river.

The forum will also face the perennial challenge of military-ruled Myanmar, which has sparked international outrage by putting pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on trial over an incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside house. Myanmar, ASEAN’s most troublesome member since joining the bloc in 1997, showed its defiance earlier this month by refusing to allow UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to visit the opposition icon when he visited the country.

Vitavas of the Thai foreign ministry said democratic reform in Myanmar could be raised during the Phuket talks. Myanmar’s UN envoy said last week that the ruling junta would release prisoners ahead of elections planned next year.

The regional economy and swine flu could also come up at the ASEAN Regional Forum, Vitavas said. Thailand now has the largest death toll from the A(H1N1) virus in Asia, with 24 fatalities and more than 4,000 infections.

“We will discuss the pandemic and cooperation among members… there are several countries attending which are affected by the flu,” Vitavas said — adding that visiting ministers would be screened for the virus on arrival.

ASEAN foreign ministers are further set to endorse a final version of the bloc’s new human rights body, which has faced criticism for being unable to tackle persistent violators such as Myanmar.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has in recent weeks sought to reassure foreign ministers that the Phuket meeting will not be disrupted by anti-government demonstrators following months of political turmoil.

Thailand said it would deploy a 14,000-strong team for the forum and has announced a complete ban on protests in Phuket during the talks, while also invoking an internal security act for the island and its surrounding waters.

In April, Asian leaders were forced to flee the coastal city of Pattaya when protesters loyal to ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra stormed the venue. Two days of deadly rioting in Bangkok ensued.

The leaders’ summit has now been postponed until October. It was originally due to be held last December but was repeatedly delayed and moved because of ongoing political turmoil in Thailand

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