Southeast Asian nations, attempting to grapple with economic integration and human rights abuses, began their annual summit on Friday with nearly half the region’s leaders missing the opening ceremony.
The three-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference was due to launch a pivotal but sharply criticized human rights commission and discuss how best to achieve economic integration by 2015. It also will include talks with the leaders of Asia’s major powers, including China and India.
The leaders of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines did not arrive in time for the opening. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is hosting an official visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Indonesia is swearing in a new government and Malaysia’s government was presenting its budget to Parliament, said Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was running late due to Typhoon Lupit, the third storm in a month due to hit the Philippines, her spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said.
One of the first orders of business will be the inauguration of the Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights, which activists say will do little to deter human rights violators like ASEAN member Myanmar because it imposes no punishments and focuses on promotion rather than protection of human rights.
ASEAN officials respond that the commission is a work in progress and can be strengthened in the future.
They say that that agreement on human rights standards is difficult within a grouping that includes two communist states, two kingdoms, a sultanate and military—ruled Myanmar.
Members of the 10-nation bloc have recently escalated their criticism of Myanmar. But the summit will again likely to act by consensus, avoid confrontations and maintain that the group’s approach to engaging Myanmar works better than the West’s sanctions and threats.
The summit will also sign a declaration on climate change and discuss food security, bio-energy, disaster management and how trade barriers can be brought down to bring about a European Union-style grouping within the next six years.
Opening the conference, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said ASEAN was fully committed to economic integration but warned that “the task ahead will not be easy.”
“What we need to do is to collectively set a clear vision of what we want to achieve in the year 2015 and beyond. We have to start thinking about a new approach in the way we do things. In this increasingly globalized era, we no longer have the luxury of time,” he said.
The bloc will then meet with leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Thailand has deployed more than 36,000 military and police both in Bangkok and to guard the seaside summit of Asian leaders, working to prevent any repeat of the disruptions that shut down another meeting earlier this year, an official said on Thursday.
The government is still smarting from the storming of the East Asian Summit in April in the coastal city of Pattaya, where anti-government protesters charged through thin police ranks and forced the evacuation of several leaders by helicopter and boat.
A main protest organizer said no new demonstrations are planned this week in Bangkok or at the summit venue, the beach resort of Cha-am, 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of the capital.
About half of the security forces mobilized have thrown a security cordon around this summit venue, and the others will be on alert in the Thai capital, said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. He said 20 newly bought bulletproof SUV’s will chauffeur leaders to their meetings.
“Security forces have also set up emergency escape routes by land, air and sea,” he said. “We don’t expect it to be necessary but we want to be ready and to assure leaders that they will be able to meet without distraction.”
Security forces have also been empowered to impose curfews and restrict freedom of movement around Cha-am and Bangkok.
Thailand has been rocked by years of protests and counter-protests by supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup on accusations of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect to the country’s monarch.