Sunday, 20 July 2008

Asian security talks to tackle NKorea, Myanmar

SINGAPORE (Channel New Asia) - North Korea and Myanmar will top the billing at Asia's main security forum this week, but the inflation crisis and disaster response have emerged as critical new concerns.

The 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which includes nations from Asia as well as the European Union and the United States, meets here Thursday after talks by ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

With civil war in Sri Lanka, insurgencies in Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines, and a dangerous new standoff at an ancient temple on the Thai-Cambodian border, Asia's list of security issues is long.

But the North Korean nuclear issue tops the agenda and the highlight of the conference will be a meeting of foreign ministers from the six nations negotiating a denuclearisation plan -- the first since 2003.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to meet her North Korean counterpart Pak Ui-chun for the first time at the informal talks tipped for Wednesday, which will also include South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the meeting was not aimed at generating "some specific negotiated outcome" but would "review where the six-party process is at the moment."

Myanmar, which has infuriated the international community by refusing to introduce democratic reforms or free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, is likely to face a fresh challenge.

Myanmar could face a demand from its neighbours to release all political prisoners, a proposal made by the bloc's senior officials which their foreign ministers must decide whether to endorse.

If approved at the ministerial talks that start late Sunday and continue the following day, the measure would signal a toughening of ASEAN's stance that would be welcomed by Western governments.

The move comes after the government earned widespread contempt by refusing to open its doors to foreign relief workers in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May, a disaster that left 138,000 people dead or missing.

ASEAN won plaudits for winning approval to co-ordinate the international effort to bring help to two million people who the bloc's secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, has said remain in a "very precarious situation."

Working under an agreement with the United Nations and the Myanmar government, nearly 300 ASEAN volunteers operating in the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta have prepared an assessment that is to be released on Monday.

Myanmar's cyclone disaster, a recent earthquake in China and a ferry sinking in the Philippines have made disaster preparedness a burning issue this week, two years after the ARF vowed to develop guidelines for joint disaster relief.

Since then, precious little has been done but the 27 members are now expected to discuss a joint civilian-military disaster relief exercise, among other measures.

Amid warnings that spiralling prices of food and fuel in the largely impoverished region could threaten political stability, the ASEAN ministers will attempt to hammer out some solutions.

The problem, if left unchecked, could pose a challenge to the region's long-term aim of evolving into a European Union-style community where goods and services are freely traded across the region by 2015, officials said.

Ministers will discuss "the growing challenge posed by rising oil and food prices, which pose a serious challenge to our people's welfare as well as our countries' continued economic development," according to a draft joint communique obtained by AFP. - AFP/vm

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