/ 1 March 2009

Asean leaders address financial crisis at summit

South-east Asian leaders endorsed easier monetary policies and made a stand against protectionism on Sunday as they concluded a summit overshadowed by the worst financial crisis in decades.

The 10 leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations issued a statement welcoming expansionary macroeconomic policies, including fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, access to credit and trade financing, and measures to stimulate domestic demand.

”Towards this end, they stressed the importance of coordinating policies and taking joint actions that would be mutually reinforcing at the regional level.”

The statement did not provide any specific policies or actions Asean planned to take on a regional level.

The statement also said the leaders agreed to stand firm against protectionism and refrain from introducing or raising new trade barriers.

They also called for ”bold and urgent reform” of the international financial system, taking into consideration the interests of developing countries.

Civil dialogue
Asean has begun, with this summit, implementing a roadmap that will turn what used to be a consensus-based group long derided as a talk-shop into a single community of 570-million people with a combined GDP of $2-trillion in six years.

The summit, whose theme this year was ”Asean Charter for Asean Peoples” held a dialogue with civil society groups, which will now become a regular feature of these meetings.

But it got off to a wobbly start when Cambodia and Burma refused to recognise the groups representing their countries.

Activist organisations on the meeting sidelines said the incident showed Asean was still succumbing to its tradition of non-interference in each member’s affairs and taking decisions by consensus instead of sticking to its rules.

A draft summit declaration also obtained by Reuters says the leaders have broadly agreed on the terms of reference for a much-debated human rights body and will make it operational by the end of this year.

But the global financial crisis and the looming spectre of unemployment in a region where poverty is still entrenched have overshadowed Burma and human rights, issues that have often take the spotlight at these meetings.

The Asean leaders urged military-ruled Burma to continue to cooperate with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, the statement said.

The biggest outcome of the meetings so far was the signing of a free trade agreement between Asean, New Zealand and Australia that could eventually add $48-billion to economies in the region.

Asean officials have argued against protectionism but have defended their own buy-local campaigns, saying they conform with trade rules and are similar to the ”Buy American” clause that was inserted into the $787-billion US stimulus package.

Asean comprises Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines. – Reuters