Hanoi: Southeast Asian leaders on Friday pressed troublesome member Myanmar to ensure its elections this year are fair and inclusive, at a summit focused on binding together the sprawling region.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Vietnam's capital Hanoi has been overshadowed by the Myanmar issue, as well as political drama in Thailand which forced its premier to stay at home.
"The main message that's coming out from the summit is the importance of the elections that are coming up in 2010, and not any type of elections," said Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
"But instead an election that is free, that is fair, that is democratic, that is credible. These are qualities that Myanmar itself has said they want to fulfil. So I think the clarion call... is the importance for Myanmar to live up to the commitments."
The United States has led international condemnation of laws Myanmar has enacted for the ballot, the first in the military-run country in two decades, which effectively bar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from participating.
ASEAN members are divided on how to handle Myanmar, which has always escaped formal censure from the 10-nation group as it adheres to a principle of non-interference in each other's internal affairs.
But as Myanmar's poor record -- including allegations of massive human rights abuses as well as a failure to shift to democracy -- again threatens to discredit the region, its neighbours reminded it of its obligations.
"The elections should be fair, democratic, with the participation of all parties," the summit's host, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, said at a closing press conference.
"This will help... stabilise the country and focus resources on development," he said, adding that he had "forwarded ASEAN's message" to the ruling generals during his visit to Myanmar last week.
The main order of business for the two-day summit was efforts to propel ASEAN towards a 2015 goal to establish a community of nations encompassing 600 million people with economic, security and social ties.
"While important progress has been made... much remains to be done," Dung said as he opened the two-day talks.
Although the meeting's slogan is "from vision to action", analysts say ASEAN is hampered by wide development gaps within the region, entrenched domestic interests and the shortcomings and instability of some members.
Its diverse membership ranges from Laos, one of Asia's poorest nations, to the Westernised city-state of Singapore, the absolute monarchy of Brunei and the vibrant democracy of Indonesia.
The group this week took another step towards addressing long-neglected human rights concerns with the inauguration of a commission to address the rights of women and children.
Ministers also fleshed out their vision of a rules-based regional community by signing a protocol to help member nations resolve conflicts.
In a joint statement, the leaders called on regional governments to prepare to wind down economic stimulus measures brought in during the global financial crisis.
They also said they want vital road, sea and air links completed more quickly to complement efforts to integrate regional economies.
And in a separate document, the leaders called for a legally binding global pact on climate change and urged richer nations to provide them with "scaled-up" financial help to combat its effects.
ASEAN also discussed expanding relations with Russia and the United States. The 43-year-old bloc is trying to ensure it is not pushed aside by proposals for new regional groupings.
"It's very important that we stay in the driver's seat," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said.
First Published: Friday, April 09, 2010, 15:37