Singapore, Nov 20: Southeast Asian nations were set to sign a charter on Tuesday that aims for free trade and human rights, but controversy over member Myanmar has marred the landmark deal.
The Association of South East Asian Nations has spurned calls to suspend Myanmar's membership in a group that encompasses some 500 million people over the junta's crackdown on pro-democracy protests, prompting criticism the charter was toothless.
ASEAN has instead opted for ''engagement'' with Myanmar, calling on the junta to work with the United Nations towards democracy and to release political detainees, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
''Myanmar has not fought to take out words like 'human rights' and 'democracy'. They are not against putting these down as an aspiration, but they ask for more time,'' ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong told to the sources in an interview.
ASEAN has barred the U.N. envoy for Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, from briefing the summit, after objections from Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein and other members, citing the group's policy of non-interference in each other domestic's affairs.
''Thein Sein opposed it. He said that nobody has the right to brief on Myanmar but him,'' an Asian diplomat told to the sources. ASEAN officials and Filipino diplomats said China, Myanmar's closest ally, had also asked ASEAN to refrain from public comments on Myanmar.
But Japan's Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura told reporters after meeting his Myanmar counterpart that Gambari was ''a friend of Myanmar''.
''He may say tough things, but he is also telling Aung San Suu Kyi many things,'' he said, referring to the detained Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate. ''And he has told Japan to support Myanmar should it move in the good direction towards democratisation.'' A Japanese foreign ministry official was more blunt.
''Myanmar would completely be misinterpreting the thinking of the international community if it thinks it can cut ties with Gambari just because there are some in ASEAN that support it in opposing Gambari's attendance,'' the official told reporters.
But Myanmar Foreign Minister U Nyan Win brushed off the criticism over Gambari saying: ''It's our internal affair.'' As for freeing Suu Kyi, he said: ''It is not the right time to talk about it.'' EAST ASIA SUMMIT After years of haggling, the 40-year-old group's charter contains a blueprint to create an EU-style, free-trade bloc, though the past year has been one of political regression.
In September, just a year after the Thai military overthrew a democratically elected government, Myanmar ordered soldiers to shoot at unarmed monks and protestors.
Asked why a one-party state would sign a charter that aims to strengthen democracy, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung underlined the charter's principles of non-interference.
''The one-party system is the choice of the Vietnamese people. I don't think there should be any imposition from any countries,'' Dung said. While ASEAN's democratisation process has stumbled, the regional economy faces daunting challenges.
Despite strong economic growth in all ASEAN member countries, regional trade has shrunk as China's rapid growth forces former Southeast Asian tigers such as Malaysia into an old role as plantation economies and suppliers of raw materials and half-finished goods.
An Economist Intelligence Unit shows the total amount of trade among ASEAN countries fell from 22.4% of the bloc's total trade in 2000 to 20.9% in 2006.
''This does not augur well for ASEAN's aspirations to become a single trading bloc,'' EIU director Charles Goddard said.
ASEAN leaders will have meetings with the heads of Japan, China and South Korea in the ASEAN+3 group later on Tuesday, and with the ASEAN+6 (also called the East Asian Summit and including India, Australia and New Zealand) on Wednesday.