July 21, 2008 / 3:18 AM / 11 years ago

Southeast Asia tackles food, energy security

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Southeast Asian foreign ministers are tackling spiraling food and fuel prices at their annual meeting on Monday, according to a draft declaration, as worsening inflation adds to political turbulence in the region.

Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan Win reads a document during a ministerial retreat at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting in Singapore July 21, 2008. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

Diplomats said the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also agreed to hold a “food summit” in December, with prices of rice, the staple food in the region, soaring this year on fears of shortages.

The foreign ministers would discuss “the growing challenge posed by rising oil and food prices ... to our people’s welfare as well as our countries’ continued economic development,” the draft joint communique says.

The high-growth economies of Southeast Asia are worried global financial turmoil could lead to the kind of chain reactions that destabilised them in the “Asian contagion” financial crisis of 1997-98, one Philippines official said.

Spiraling prices contributed to unprecedented opposition gains in Malaysia’s general elections last March and are stoking political turmoil elsewhere in the region, including food riots and protests in some countries and export restrictions in others.

ASEAN aims to sign a landmark charter in December that would create an EU-style community among its members, which have a total population of around 560 million and a combined GDP of $1.2 trillion.

Four countries have yet to ratify the constitution, but Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that won’t stop its implementation.

“ASEAN has decided to press on with the charter’s implementation without waiting for all 10 member states to ratify,” he said in a speech to open the meeting.

The planned economic, security and cultural community would take ASEAN well beyond the “talking shop” some of its critics deride it as being.

“Our choices will determine the shape of the political and security architecture in Southeast Asia in this century,” said host Singapore’s foreign minister, George Yeo.

“With the rapid rise of China and India, ASEAN has to deepen its integration to stay competitive and relevant.”

DIPLOMATIC MUSCLE

ASEAN’s inability to get Myanmar’s junta to reform has been a major stumbling block in its ambition to exert economic and diplomatic muscle.

But on Sunday, Yeo offered a rare ray of optimism about ASEAN’s problem child, saying the generals could release detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in about half a year.

Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win told him that in six month’s time Suu Kyi will have served a maximum six years in detention.

Asked whether this meant she could be released in six months, Yeo told reporters: “I am just repeating to you what (Nyan Win) told me and I think that is not an inaccurate inference.”

Suu Kyi has been confined for nearly 13 of the past 19 years.

The draft declaration expressed “deep disappointment” Suu Kyi’s detention under house arrest had been extended in May and called for her release and that of all political detainees.

The foreign ministers, representing countries that include a kingdom, a junta, communist states and democracies, are expected to agree a framework for a landmark human rights body.

But indicative of the difficulties in integrating nations with long-standing territorial spats and ancient animosities, Thailand and Cambodia have confronted each other in recent days over the disputed site of a 900-year-old temple on their border.

ASEAN is urging Thailand and Cambodia to show “utmost caution and restraint and abide by international obligations” and has offered to help resolve the stand-off in which hundreds of Thai and Cambodian troops have confronted each other for the past week, Singapore Prime Minister Lee said.

“ASEAN could not stand idly by without damaging its credibility. This reflects a growing sense that ASEAN is no longer a talk shop,” he said in his opening remarks.

ASEAN groups Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei, Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia.

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