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December 11, 2006 Monday

ASEAN Summit rescheduled on January 10 to 13, 2006

Officials yesterday of Cebu City Philippines announced the postponed Southeast Asian summit may be held Jan. 10-13 however reports endure that its postponement was prompted by security fears rather than a typhoon that sideswiped the city and caused little damage.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) yesterday said local militants with ties to al-Qaeda had plotted to disrupt the meeting of leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea.

“It was difficult to verify the threat, but we monitored it,” MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu told the Inquirer by telephone in Cotabato City. But Chief Superintendent Joel Goltiao, the regional police chief, said he had not confirmed any plot to disrupt the Cebu summit.

The four-day 12th ASEAN summit was originally scheduled to begin today.

On Friday, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration announced the gathering had been put off because of Typhoon “Seniang” (international codename: Utor) that was plodding toward the country from the Pacific.

Ambassador Marciano Paynor Jr., chair of the summit’s national organizing committee (NOC), said in a press briefing here that senior officials of ASEAN and six other countries from East Asia reached the “consensus” on the new summit dates on Saturday. Paynor said the new dates would have to be confirmed first by the leaders of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, which comprise ASEAN, and dialogue partners that include India, New Zealand and Australia.

The final dates would be announced within the week, Paynor said. The biggest complication could be the scheduled Jan. 6-14 trip to Europe of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

‘Right decision’

“We still feel that we made the right decision in considering the safety of the delegates,” Paynor said, referring to the postponement. While thankful that the typhoon was hardly felt in Metro Cebu, he said the hosts could not afford to put at risk the safety of the heads of state.

Summit spokesperson Victoriano Lecaros said it was fortunate that Cebu was spared and that should not be a cause for regret.
“Let’s not be like the guy who bought car insurance and expressed regret that he didn’t meet an accident so he could collect on the policy,” Lecaros said.

Paynor acknowledged that there would be huge economic losses in Cebu as a result of the deferment. “All of us lost, but this is all part of the reality of life,” he said.

The number of meetings and documents to be signed by ministers in the January meeting will almost be cut in half, which means fewer delegates and hotel room requirements, Paynor said.

40 meetings

He said the number of meetings would go down from 95 to about 40 since the ASEAN eminent persons’ group and the economic ministers had concluded their conferences.

Speculations spread that the postponement may have been caused by security issues because several foreign embassies on Thursday issued warnings that a terror attack was possible.

The Associated Press reported that a Philippine security official said that the terror warnings, planned antigovernment protests in Manila and fresh coup rumors may have influenced Ms Arroyo’s decision to defer the meetings.

The typhoon was “a lame alibi” amid the political unrest that had been brewing due to opposition by many groups against a government-endorsed plan to amend the Constitution, he said, according to AP. "It's a sign of a weak government," the mayor of the city of Cebu, where the ASEAN summit and a wider meeting of regional leaders had been due to begin on Sunday, told Agence France-Presse. "We would not have cancelled it and we live here," said Mayor Tomas Osmeña.

The abrupt cancellation, terror worries and other problems -- X-ray security machines were covered in plastic bags to keep off rain dripping through the $10-million convention centre -- have given Ms Arroyo’s critics more ammunition.

"It's brand new and the roof is leaking," said one official with the ASEAN business and investment summit held before the main events were cancelled. "This will be remembered as the summit that failed."

Ms Arroyo had wanted to use the ASEAN summit and its associated meetings to showcase the progress the Philippines has made during her presidency. But critics say her report card is not looking good.

Poverty is still widespread with more than 40 percent of the country's 84 million people living on less than two dollars a day, and her administration is regularly cited as one of the worst in the region on human rights.

Just before the cancelled summit, Japan said it was concerned about the killings of left-wing journalists that have been blamed on the government, and said improvements on rights would be a condition for further aid packages.

"Arroyo is not fooling anyone," said Lidy Nacpil, one of the organizers of a series of protests by leftist groups that had been planned for the summit. "Not even the ASEAN leaders would have believed her alibi of a typhoon."

Best dry run

Under the proposed new schedule, foreign ministers would hold two days of consultations before the leaders arrive on Jan. 10, followed by the ASEAN summit the next day. ASEAN would meet with China, Japan and South Korea on Jan. 12, with the East Asia summit on the 13th.

“This is one of the best dry runs we’ve ever had,” Paynor said in jest. “Although the attendant quid pro quo for that is our anguish, and our feeling of extreme disappointment.”

The Philippines had rushed to get ready to host the meeting -- building a new convention center from scratch that was still getting the final touches as preliminary meetings started -- after Burma pulled out as host eight months ago amid criticism over its human rights record.

The President had earlier been harshly criticized over the convention center site, where squatter camps were bulldozed to make way for the summit -- whose theme, chosen by Arroyo herself, was "a caring and sharing community."

Despite assurances from Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia that the building would be completed on time, workmen were still painting and decorating as local and foreign media moved in last week.

But the main source of public anger at Ms Arroyo was her decision last week to try to bypass the Philippine Senate as part of her unpopular plans to change the constitution in what is seen as a way to solidify her power in office.

The proposal has triggered street protests which includes those from the powerful Roman Catholic Church, and other religious and business organizations, as well as broad civil society and social movements.

"Political noise in Manila over Arroyo's plans to change the constitution might have played a part in the decision to cancel the summit," said one delegate to the summit who asked not to be named.

Ben Diokno, a professor at the University of the Philippines, said Ms Arroyo had been "scared of the mass action" that had been planned for the summit.

"Political survival for her comes first," he said. "The weather was a good excuse."