Jakarta bombings loom over Asian security meeting

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

Thai soldiers conduct a security check prior the 42nd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meeting in Phuket island on July 19, 2009.

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 Asian nations, the European Union and the United States, meets here Thursday with a debut appearance from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after talks between 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.

But Friday's twin suicide bombings at hotels in the Indonesian capital which left eight people dead have unexpectedly thrown the issue of the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) back into the spotlight.

Indonesian police Sunday confirmed JI as having carried out the attack, which has shattered years of calm in ASEAN's most populous member nation. The group carried out the 2002 Bali bombings which left more than 200 dead.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya indicated that the subject of the attacks would come up in Phuket, where ministers were due to hold their first informal meeting over dinner late Sunday.

"We talk a lot about terrorism," he told reporters as he arrived. "Terrorism that costs innocent people's lives should be denounced, and there is an effort worldwide for reconciliation and trying to make people turn to each other."

ASEAN foreign ministers denounced the bomb attacks in a statement on Saturday, saying they fully backed the Indonesian government's efforts to bring the culprits behind the "heinous acts" to justice."

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's 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 Sunday night's dinner, 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.

Source: AFP

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