Ways to tackle militant violence, protect vital shipping lanes from terrorist attack and persuade Myanmar’s junta to embrace democracy dominated a meeting of 10 southeast Asian foreign ministers on Wednesday.
Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri opened the annual meeting of ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by alluding to the international embarrassment caused to the group by member Myanmar’s repressive policies.
Southeast Asia should take firm steps to put flesh on the bones of an ASEAN Security Community to battle international terrorism, she said amid moves by the region to prevent militant strikes on ships sailing the vital Malacca Strait.
“We in ASEAN have no reason to be complacent,” she said in a speech stressing the Indonesian initiative to boost cooperation on security in a region of 500 million people rocked by several deadly extremist militant attacks since the September 11 strikes.
“We must also be at the forefront in the fight against the most inhuman of multinational crimes: international terrorism,” she told ministers, who spent their meeting trying to narrow differences on how to tackle terror without diluting sovereignty.
The security community was launched at a summit last year in Bali, months after bombings on the Indonesian tourist island killed 202 people and were blamed on al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah. Plots on Singapore and Thailand have been thwarted.
It envisions cooperation on maritime security, particularly in the Malacca Strait through which passes a quarter of the world’s trade and almost all of China and Japan’s oil.
In an embarrassing coincidence with Indonesia’s initiative, the International Maritime Bureau reported a surge in piracy in the strait along Indonesia’s north Sumatra coast and warned that Jakarta was the weakest link in sea lane security.
A day earlier, littoral states Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore set up a new task force to patrol the Malacca Strait, but took care to retain national commands and to voice opposition to U.S. suggestions it too play a role in the channel.
Such a move is a leap for the group of kingdoms, communists, juntas and democracies that has long stood by a principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs. ASEAN comprises Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, Brunei, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia.
Megawati took note of individual concerns over sovereignty.
“Contrary to the misgivings of many, we shall not form a military alliance nor conclude a defence pact,” she said.
Overshadowing the meeting was member Myanmar’s detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi since May 2003.
That has tested the principle of non interference and risks becoming an irritant again at this week’s forum of Asia-Pacific foreign ministers that follows the ASEAN talks and when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is likely to voice displeasure.
Megawati urged Myanmar’s generals to do more. “We do encourage Myanmar to take every action that will add substance to the expression of its democratic aspiration,” she said.