Asean ministers tackle full agenda

ASEAN ministers and their dialogue partners started the Asean Post Ministerial Conference yesterday with a pledge to put poverty, drug trafficking, infectious disease, the digital gap between rich and poor nations and traffic in women and children high on their agenda of issues to tackle.

“Today these issues are undermining human security and threatening the well-being of society in this and other regions of the world,” Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan said in his opening remarks on the first day of the two-day conference.

Surin, the outgoing chairman of the Asean Standing Committee, said these problems were rooted in the development gap between the rich and the poor and continued to widen with globalisation.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright applauded the regional grouping’s decision to advance the date for a drug-free Asean from 2020 to 2015 and expressed the US’s willingness to help.

Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung used the forum to defend his government’s ties with ethnic Wa and Kokang opium warlords, saying the armed narcotics-trafficking groups were now committed to developing their areas to become drug-free.

Win Aung said that Burma had always welcomed the opportunity to work with the international community in the fight against drugs, adding that his country had not been given the respect it deserved for its efforts to curb the flow of drugs coming out of the country.

For years Rangoon has come under attack for not doing enough to curb the trafficking of narcotics and allowing drug lords Kun Sa, Pao Yu-qiang and Lo Hsing-san to operate freely in the country.

According to a diplomatic source, during the closed-door meeting yesterday, Albright blasted her Burmese counterpart over the absence of political dialogue between the ruling junta and the opposition National League for Democracy Party.

In her prepared speech, Albright warned the region not to overlook the danger of HIV/Aids, saying the epidemics in Burma and Cambodia were growing at an alarming rate. In Thailand alone, Albright said, at least a million adults are HIV infected.

“There is no greater danger to the health and security of this region,” she said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan stressed the issue of sovereignty, warning his counterparts that theories such as “human rights overriding sovereignty” and “humanitarian intervention knowing no boundaries” have threatened the norms governing international relations and threatened the sovereignty and security of developing nations.

Tang called on Asian countries to strengthen economic cooperation and urged developed countries to “share the benefits of globalisation”.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer meanwhile announced yesterday it was providing 200 million Australian dollars (Bt4.8 trillion) for the next six years to combat the spread of HIV/Aids. He also announced a new phase of Australia’s economic development cooperation with Asean worth A$45 million aimed at boosting trade.

On the economic side, Surin, speaking to reporters, said a full recovery in the region depended on the opening of markets in the US, the European Union and Australia. He said Albright had promised to relay his message to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) that the high oil price was not benefiting anyone.

On the development side, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien, who will take over chairing the Asean Standing Committee after Surin, called on Asean’s dialogue partners to help bridge the gap between the rich and poor Asean members through development programmes.