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ASEAN members unite to fight crisis

SOUTHEAST Asian leaders said yesterday they backed stimulus plans, opposed protectionism and would coordinate policies to confront a deepening global financial crisis battering their economies.

The 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations did not spell out any specific actions the group would take in a chairman's statement issued after their summit in the Thai seaside resort of Hua Hin.

They said they endorsed expansionary policies, including fiscal stimulus plans, monetary easing, access to credit and trade financing, and measures to stimulate domestic demand.

Export-dependent Asian economic growth is slowing rapidly as consumers stop spending.

In Southeast Asia, Singapore is in recession and economists say Malaysia and Thailand are on the brink while Indonesia is having its slowest growth in more than two years.

Many Asian countries have announced stimulus plans in a bid to stem the economic damage but exports will not stage a major recovery until consumers in the West start spending again.

The leaders also agreed to stand firm against protectionism and refrain from introducing or raising new trade barriers and called for "bold and urgent reform" of the international financial system, the statement said.

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

Economic ministers last week agreed to reduce trade barriers and open up some service industries. The most tangible outcome of the meetings was the signing of a free trade agreement between ASEAN, New Zealand and Australia that could eventually add US$48 billion to economies in the region.

In the run-up to the meeting ASEAN along with China, South Korea and Japan agreed to enlarge their pool of foreign reserves to US$120 billion to defend their currencies from the fallout of the financial crisis.

ASEAN leaders may have made a stand against protectionism but they have defended their own buy-local campaigns, saying those are similar to the "Buy American" clause in the US$787 billion US stimulus package.

The summit also held talks with civil society groups, part of its drive toward creating an integrated socio-cultural community, but Cambodia and Myanmar refused to recognize the groups representing their countries.

Activist groups said the incident showed ASEAN was still succumbing to its tradition of non-interference in each member's affairs and taking decisions by consensus.

The leaders also agreed on the shape of a human rights body. But it will not have the power to punish violators, said ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan.


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