- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

BALI, Indonesia — Southeast Asian leaders from 10 nations yesterday signed a landmark accord that would pull together their diverse region into a European-style economic community in less than two decades.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) wants to band together to counter the burgeoning economic might of India and China, Asian powerhouses that are siphoning off investment and trade seen as essential for Southeast Asia’s development.

“We have just witnessed a watershed in the history of ASEAN,” Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri said. “It will make it possible for our children and their children to live in enduring peace, stability and shared prosperity.”

The blueprint, dubbed the Bali Concord II, envisions a single market eliminating tariff and nontariff barriers within an economic grouping encompassing 500 million people and annual trade totaling $720 billion.

The accord sets deadlines for lowering tariffs and travel restrictions. It aims to create by 2020 the ASEAN Economic Community, modeled on European integration of the 1960s and 1970s — before the advent of the European Union.

Leaders who gathered for a two-day ASEAN summit on this resort island acknowledged that the disparate governments — including communist autocracies and a military dictatorship as well as fledgling democracies and an absolute monarchy — will complicate efforts to emulate European integration.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Burma, Malaysia and Thailand.

Talks leading up to the annual summit were complicated by the Burmese military government’s continued detention of democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — an embarrassment for fellow ASEAN members.

Despite the group’s tradition of staying out of members’ domestic politics, members pushed for Mrs. Suu Kyi’s presummit release from house arrest as a goodwill gesture — without success. Once the summit began, leaders focused on economics, not politics, and backed away from criticizing Burma, officially called Myanmar.

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