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Jakarta bombings loom over Asian security meeting

world Updated: Jul 19, 2009 08:49 IST

Asian foreign ministers will gather on Sunday ahead of the continent’s biggest security dialogue, under the shadow of the Jakarta bomb attacks and North Korea’s nuclear programme.

Political repression in Myanmar and the region’s economy will also be on the agenda for days of talks in the Thai resort island of Phuket culminating in the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum.

The 27-member ARF, which includes nations from Asia as well as the European Union and the United States, meets here Thursday after talks by ministers from the 10-member ASEAN.

The fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan as well as tensions between Thailand and Cambodia over an ancient temple on their border are also on the long list of security issues facing Asia.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to make her debut appearance at the meeting later in the week.

But Friday’s twin suicide bombings at luxury hotels in the Indonesian capitals have unexpectedly thrown the issue of the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) back into the spotlight.

Indonesian officials have said Malaysian extremist Noordin Mohammed Top, the leader of JI, is the likely culprit behind the attacks on the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels that left at least eight dead and 55 injured.

ASEAN foreign ministers Saturday denounced the bomb attacks in a statement before the first of their meetings on Sunday.

“We fully support the Indonesian Government’s efforts to bring the perpetrators of these heinous acts to justice,” it said.

“ASEAN stands united with the government and people of Indonesia and we remain steadfast in our continued fight against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” the statement added.

Meanwhile hopes of any resolution to the tensions over North Korea’s nuclear programme dimmed after the communist state’s foreign minister declined to attend the meeting and sent a roving ambassador instead.

US State Department officials said they expected the showdown over North Korea over its nuclear and missile tests and political repression in Myanmar to be among the leading topics that Clinton will discuss when she arrives.

Regional tensions have soared since the North quit six-nation talks on nuclear disarmament and vowed to restart its atomic weapons programme in the wake of its recent defiant nuclear test and missile launches.

Foreign ministers from the other five parties -- the US, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea -- will all be in Phuket.

But Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at the Singapore Management University, said the ARF’s role in containing North Korea would be “very limited”.

“ASEAN countries (in particular) will not be able to do more than express their concern,” Welsh said.

During a working dinner between ASEAN foreign ministers on Sunday, topics will include an update on the bloc’s efforts to help military-ruled Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis, which killed around 138,000 people in May 2008.

They will also focus on Rohingya migrants from Myanmar, whose treatment by Thailand and Myanmar has caused regional concern.

But the main challenge to the grouping will be the international outrage over Myanmar’s trial of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi over an incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside house in May.

Myanmar, ASEAN’s most troublesome member since joining the bloc in 1997, showed its defiance earlier this month by refusing to allow UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to visit the opposition icon when he visited.

ASEAN foreign ministers are further set to endorse a final version of the bloc’s new human rights body, which has faced criticism for being unable to tackle persistent violators such as Myanmar.

Thousands of troops and police will throw a ring of steel around Phuket to prevent a repeat of anti-government protests which derailed a key Asian summit in the coastal city of Pattaya in April.