Sat May 7, 2011
By Neil Chatterjee
JAKARTA May 7 (Reuters) - Southeast Asian leaders sought on Saturday to resolve a deadly border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia that has cast fresh doubt over whether the region's plans to become a free-trade economic community by 2015 are realistic.
The skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia -- ostensibly over ownership of some crumbling ancient temples on the border but also driven by internal political dynamics in both countries -- have killed 18 people in the last couple of weeks,
The confrontation -- and the apparent inability of the Association of South East Asian Nations to broker a peace deal that holds -- has fuelled scepticism over the bloc's lofty ambitions and threatens to overshadow its annual two-day meeting, just as controversy over Myanmar has in the past.
"The United States and United Nations hope Indonesia, as Southeast Asia's biggest country, can help to resolve this dispute," Indonesian Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring told Reuters at the start of the meeting in Jakarta.
The 10-member ASEAN, with some of the world's fastest growing economies and some 500 million people, represents a region with increasing economic clout but is often derided as a talk shop and has a policy of non-interference in other members' domestic affairs.
Fighting over the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site in dispute since the withdrawal of the French from Cambodia in the 1950s, has turned into Southeast's Asia's bloodiest conflict in a decade and dented ASEAN's image.
Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers meeting ahead of the summit agreed on some of the ground rules for sending an Indonesian military observer team to the border, but Cambodia rejected Thailand's request to withdraw troops from the temple as a precondition.
"We never can withdraw our troops from our own territory. It should be very clear," said Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
MYRIAD SECURITY CHALLENGES
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did not mention the dispute in a speech to open the meeting on Saturday, focusing instead on the region's challenges of food and energy security and speeding up moves towards an economic community.
The group ranges from oil and gas-rich Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia, and the world's top rice exporter Thailand, to trading centre Singapore and resource-scarce Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.
ASEAN, together with China, Japan and South Korea, has agreed to have a rice reserve of over 700,0000 tonnes to protect against volatile commodity prices, which had surged this year before unexpectedly diving this week.
"Food security will be a great challenge for ASEAN," Yudhoyono said in the speech. "Nations on this earth will face a competitive situation for the scarce resources of daily needs."
The region needs to develop intra-ASEAN trade and investment, said Yudhoyono, a week after meeting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao who promised $9 billion in loans to overhaul Indonesia's dilapidated infrastructure and to speed up transport links between the region and China.
"We still have to do a lot of things," Yudhoyono added.
He said the leaders, transported in a fleet of gleaming Toyota limos through Jakarta's traffic jams and tropical rains that killed 17 people on Friday night in floods to the west of the capital, will also discuss disaster management following the devastating tsunami in key trading partner Japan. (Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia, Aditya Suharmoko and Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Andrew Marshall)