Asean seeks phased Iraq troop pullout

His Royal Highness Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Her Royal Highness Pengiran Anak Isteri Pengiran Anak Hjh Zariah yesterday morning joined other Foreign Ministers of Asean at the opening ceremony of the 40th Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) at the Philippines International Centre in Manila.

President of the Republic of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, officially opened the meeting.

Asean Foreign Ministers later received and discussed a progress report from the High Level Task Force on the Asean Charter. Other outstanding regional matters were also discussed at an AMM Retreat.

In the afternoon, His Royal Highness and other Asean Foreign Ministers attended a plenary session of the 40th AMM.

Asean Foreign Ministers hailed as historic an agreement to create a regional human rights body, but the grouping stuck to its traditionally subdued criticism of Myanmar's military junta, newswires reported.

The ministers also tackled terrorism, better enforcement of a regional anti-nuclear treaty, disaster management and ways to help poorer members catch up with wealthier ones to foster faster economic integration.

They also called for a phased withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, saying they were deeply concerned about continued instability in the country.

"We believe that the phased and calibrated withdrawal of foreign forces in Iraq, taking into account the conditions on the ground, will contribute toward bringing normalcy," the foreign ministers said in a statement after their annual meeting.

They expressed "deep concern over the continued instability in Iraq" and reaffirmed support for the Iraqi government's efforts to ensure security, stability and prosperity.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, chairman of the meeting, said Asean was not calling for a specific time frame for the troops' withdrawal, but was stating "a desire of all, and I might say including the United States and their allies."

He said the US government does not object to a calibrated withdrawal of forces from Iraq, but is against putting a time frame on the pullout.

The regional body also sidestepped on working out the mandate and scope of a future rights body.

One diplomat privy to discussions said differences over the body had been papered over to get Asean's newer members -- Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam -- to agree to its creation.

"This is a victory for human rights," Romulo, told reporters.

He insisted no country could opt out of joining the rights body, which he said would be established once leaders ratified a mini-constitution for Asean in November.

Southeast Asia is hoping a charter will transform Asean, whose members include an absolute monarchy and communist states, into a rules-based organisation better able to compete against the growing economic might of China and India.

But differences have already emerged on whether Asean should abandon its time-honoured way of resolving issues by consensus or put them to a vote -- seen as key if the bloc wants to speed up regional economic integration by 2015.

Romulo said a decision on voting procedures as well as whether wayward members could be sanctioned would be decided by leaders when they agree on the charter in November.

Foreign ministers agreed on the first draft of the mini-constitution at Monday's meeting in the Philippines, which holds the rotating chairmanship of Asean.

"The leaders will determine by themselves how to proceed," said Romulo, adding that the first draft was just "the point of reference".

A joint communique issued at the end of the meeting showed that the 40-year old bloc, which has a policy of non-interference in its members' internal affairs, was still using a "softly-softly" approach against Myanmar.

While Asean called for the the release of political detainees, including Aung San Suu Kyi, it did not name the Nobel laureate, but referred to her as the leader of the NLD (National League for Democracy).

"We urged Myanmar to show tangible progress that would lead to a peaceful transition to democracy in the near future," the communique said.

"While recognising the steps taken by the Myanmar government to release the leader of the NLD, we continue to express concern on the detention of all political detainees and reiterate our calls for their early release."

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told Reuters the ministers were forthright in demanding Suu Kyi's release during the closed-door meeting.

"I think we have made very strong comments that we wanted to see something that can be believed, that is acceptable to the Asean community," he said. He said Myanmar did not say when Suu Kyi could be freed. - Borneo Bulletin (31st July 2007)