By NINIEK KARMINI, Associated Press
JAKARTA, Indonesia – Southeast Asian leaders sought to help Thailand and Cambodia end deadly clashes along their disputed border, saying peace and stability were a prerequisite to larger goals of regional economic integration.
The two sides agreed to hold talks Sunday — mediated by Indonesia's president — as part of efforts to hammer out a lasting cease-fire.
But with acrimony high, it was unclear just how much can be accomplished.
Other topics on the agenda of the two-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, summit included Myanmar's bid to take over the rotating chair of the 10-member regional grouping, spiraling food and energy prices, and security in the South China Sea.
The main maritime dispute is over the potentially oil-rich Spratly islands, claimed in whole or in part by China and four ASEAN members — Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam.
The smaller nations, together with the U.S., worry that China may use its military might to seize the area outright or assume de facto control with naval patrols.
That could threaten one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario called on ASEAN to end a nine-year disagreement with China that has blocked completion of guidelines for an accord aimed at preventing armed conflicts over the disputed islands.
Those guidelines would allow the five countries to pursue joint development projects to ease tensions in the South China Sea region.
The summit that wraps up Sunday is supposed to focus on steps needed to create an integrated regional economic zone by 2015.
But Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the host, said in his opening statement Saturday that little can be accomplished without peace and stability between member countries.
To that end, he will chair a meeting between the Cambodian and Thai prime ministers to try to end repeated outbreaks of fighting that have claimed nearly 20 lives in the last two weeks and sent 100,000 people fleeing from their homes.
The dispute — allegedly over control of ancient temples claimed by the two nations — has stirred nationalist sentiment on both sides.
But analysts say domestic politics is fanning the fire, especially in Thailand, where the military that staged a coup in 2006 could be posturing ahead of elections expected as early as next month.
Though agreement to accept mediation was a good sign — Thailand has previously said the matter must be resolved directly between it and Cambodia — neither seemed in any mood to back down.
Cambodia lambasted a request by Thailand to remove troops from its own side of the frontier.
"Can you imagine that Cambodia withdraw from their own territory? It's nonsense!" Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters Saturday.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva insisted, however, that his country had no ill intention toward its eastern neighbor.
"We have a number of bilateral mechanisms that are functioning," Abhisit said, referring to Cambodia's attempt to seek a settlement through the International Court of Justice.
"This is something that we should talk about ... and prove to the world that as members of ASEAN, this can be resolved," he said.
Meanwhile, Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, who heads the military-backed party that overwhelmingly won general elections late last year, was expected to ask for the right to chair ASEAN in 2014.
Some countries say Myanmar is ready, but others argue that, despite the recent release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the government has not yet done enough to improve human rights.
Myanmar still has more than 2,000 political prisoners.
The regional grouping is supposed to rotate its chair every year between member countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
However, Myanmar was forced to skip its turn in 2005 after coming under heavy pressure from the international community over slow progress on national reconciliation and human rights.