Foreign ministers in talks to give shape to charter

SIEM REAP (AFP) - Asean foreign ministers are expected to hold their first talks at the weekend on an unprecedented charter seen as crucial for shoring up the bloc's credibility, Cambodian officials said Thursday.

His Royal Highness Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is in Siem Reap to attend the meeting. Accompanying His Royal Highness is HRH Pg Anak Isteri Pg Anak Hjh Zariah.

A task force charged with putting together a final charter that would transform the group into a rules-based organisation along the lines of the European Union will wrap up discussions later in the day, said Kao Kim Hourn, a secretary of state with Cambodia's foreign ministry.

The working group will then brief foreign ministers ahead of the start of their two-day meeting Friday, he told AFP.

"This is a significant document for Asean," he said, without elaborating on the task force's progress.

"It is very important because it will take Asean into the future -- it will provide a legal identity, and empower and strengthen Asean even more," he added.

Kao Kim Hourn said the task force was expected to have a draft charter completed by October, to be discussed by Asean leaders the following month.

According to the blueprint adopted at last month's Asean summit, traditional decision-making by consensus would be retained wherever possible, but members would vote on issues if agreement could not be reached.

Serious breaches of the charter would empower leaders to impose sanctions including suspension or expulsion in extreme cases, but it is unclear whether the eventual agreement will go that far.

Some analysts question whether the plan is too ambitious to become a reality, especially given the group's history of operating by consensus and staying out of each other's affairs.

The bloc has come in for strong criticism for its "softly, softly" approach to military-ruled Myanmar, the most troublesome member of the Asean.

While nations bristled at a US bid for UN Security Council pressure on Myanmar -- an attempt blocked by

China and Russia - Asean has at the same time been unable to get the regime to move forward on democracy and human rights.

Kao Kim Hourn said Myanmar was not on the agenda of the foreign minister's meeting, which is being held in the Angkor temple town of Siem Reap.

"It is not time to deliberate on that issue -- (Myanmar) is not on the agenda," he said. (2nd March 2007)