Asean foreign ministers began arriving in Phnom Penh Sunday, in time for an evening working dinner with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and ahead of the two-day Asean Ministerial Meeting, which begins this morning at Chaktomuk Theater.
This morning’s events kick off a week of high-level diplomatic meetings in Phnom Penh, with foreign ministers and top officials from 23 countries expected to take part in Wednesday’s Asean Regional Forum.
Foreign ministers from Asean, China, South Korea and Japan will hold an Asean Plus Three meeting Tuesday, and Thursday’s Post-Ministerial Meeting will see Asean holding joint meetings with Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US.
Terrorism and human trafficking, piracy at sea, money laundering and severe acute respiratory syndrome will be among the topics discussed.
The political situation in Burma, where the ruling junta recently detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to be an agenda item, in a departure from Asean’s policy of noninterference in members’ internal affairs.
“Notwithstanding its domestic nature, [Burma] has agreed to an Asean discussion on recent political developments in that country,” Asean spokesman MC Abad Jr said Sunday. “This is the first time that Asean will comment on this domestic issue.”
The turnaround in the Asean policy apparently came about because of members like the Philippines and Thailand, who feel that Burma’s actions are sullying the group’s reputation.
“Unfortunately it is the events transpiring there that are defining Asean in the eyes of the world community,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Blas Ople told reporters.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is expected in Phnom Penh later this week, last week strongly condemned the Burmese government’s actions.
Speaking in Phnom Penh after a meeting with Hor Namhong on Sunday, Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung said Suu Kyi is being kept in custody to protect her from a possible assassination attempt, and added that no time frame can be given for the pro-democracy leader’s release.
Win Aung said Suu Kyi is not in detention but in custody to make sure that she comes to no “personal harm.” Win Aung also said the government could not give a date for her release.
With Cambodia hosting the event as chair of Asean, policy makers and defense officials will take part in a series of meetings meant to favor exchanges and diffuse tension in the region.
The announcement last week that North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun would not attend was a sign of the difficulties ahead as nations try to tackle the growing tension over North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons.
Still, North Korea is expected to have lower-ranking delegates at the meetings, and the absence of Paek Nam Sun should not make that much difference, said an Asean expert who requested anonymity. His presence would have been a sign of good faith, but would probably not have changed the outcome of the talks, said the expert.
Any issue even remotely linked to security in the region can be brought up by Asean Regional Forum participants. The conflict between India and Pakistan, the situation in Afghanistan and the aftermath of the attack on Iraq are expected to be raised.
For Japan, numerous issues center on North Korea’s actions, said Gotaro Ogawa, Japanese ambassador to Cambodia. “North Korean missiles were fired over Japan, and North Korea has had vessels in Japanese waters,” he said.
“Russia became a target of international terrorism before the tragic incident of 2001 in the US,” said Victor Samoilenko, Russian ambassador to Cambodia. About three years ago, hundreds of people were killed in terrorism attacks in Moscow, he said. “That’s why we are actively participating in the anti-terrorism coalition.”
The US, which sees Southeast Asia as a major target of international terrorists, hopes to see improvements in border and airport security and in bank-transfer monitoring of suspected terrorist supporters, said a US-embassy representative in Phnom Penh.
Piracy in the region’s waters is of great concern to Japan, the EU and to most countries that use maritime routes for trade in the region. The matter of national waters in the Korean Peninsula and in the South China Sea remains unresolved after years of discussions.
In addition to scheduled meetings, country officials are expected to hold informal and bilateral meetings—many of them kept confidential—that may be as crucial, if not more, for regional relations.
The US government wonders whether Asia Pacific countries will be able to share information and cooperate enough to address today’s international crimes, a US Embassy official said.
The Asean principle of non-intervention in members’ national affairs has always been of major importance to countries in the region. Decisions at the ARF are strictly made through consensus. For example, Pakistan still is not an ARF member because there is no consensus on its participation.
Still, creating an environment in which major powers and Asia Pacific countries can sit down together has been no small accomplishment, said Winston Mc Colgan, charge d’affaires for the European Commission in Phnom Penh. “Each time China and Vietnam, and other countries can get in a discussion and come out feeling that it has helped them develop their approach to a problem, progress has been made,” he said.
Even if participants only manage to clarify issues, the fact that the ARF gets opponents to talk to each other makes “the process more important than the result,” said Samoilenko. Using expressions such as “we are concerned with,” countries have so far managed to explain their positions on the most explosive issues, he said.
(Additional reporting by the Associated Press)