VIP summit no-show strains ASEAN ties

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Series Details Vol 6, No.46, 14.12.00, p9
Publication Date 07/12/2000
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Date: 07/12/00

By Shada Islam

A LOW turnout of EU foreign ministers at next week's meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Laos threatens to cast new clouds over a relationship already strained by policy differences over Burma.

Much to the annoyance of ASEAN leaders, the Union's ministerial-level participation in talks in Vientiane next Monday and Tuesday (11-12 December) is expected to be meagre.

Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg are the only EU countries sending foreign ministers to the long-awaited gathering, while other Union member states will be represented by either their development ministers or other diplomats.

ASEAN governments are especially unhappy that French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine is staying away, although Charles Josselin, his deputy in charge of overseas cooperation, is going to Laos. External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten and EU foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana have also said they have prior engagements.

Union diplomats insist that the EU's foreign ministers' no-show in Vientiane has nothing to do with a reluctance to sit at the same table as Burma. They also stress it is not a sign of a lack of interest. "It is a diary problem," said one, pointing out that with the Nice summit expected to drag on over the weekend, travelling to Laos will be difficult for most foreign ministers. "This has absolutely nothing to do with Burma. We always knew the Burmese would be in Vientiane and are looking forward to having a serious discussion with them," he added.

Burma's worsening economic situation, poor working standards, use of forced labour and continuing repression of pro-democracy forces will be raised by EU delegates at the meeting. A second mission to assess Burma's human rights situation is still being planned.

Also on the agenda in Vientiane are security issues, including the situation in North Korea, East Timor and the Middle East. There will be discussions on Union hopes of an early launch of a global trade round, the digital divide facing both Europe and Asia, and future directions for the EU-ASEAN relationship.

Union and ASEAN foreign ministers have not met for region-to-region talks since Burma joined the club of Southeast Asian nations in 1997. But after a three-year freeze in political discussions, EU governments agreed in April that their ties with ASEAN were too important to be jeopardised by disagreements about dealing with Burma's military junta.

In what officials describe as a "dual-track" strategy, the Union lifted its objections to Burma's presence at ministerial meetings with ASEAN but at the same time tightened its sanctions against Rangoon, including a widening of the ban on visas to include a larger number of government representatives. A freeze on Burmese military leaders' financial assets in Europe was also agreed.

A low turnout of EU foreign ministers at the forthcoming meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Laos, 11-12 December 2000, threatens to cast new clouds over a relationship already strained by policy differences over Burma.

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