Myanmar changes bring new ASEAN-EU chapter

Europe and Southeast Asia on Friday pushed for a new chapter in relations, as Myanmar embraces democratic reforms and the EU seeks growth markets amid its crippling debt crisis.

Foreign ministers and senior diplomats from the two regions met in the oil-rich sultanate Brunei to chart ways to boost cooperation in areas ranging from trade to disaster management and security.

"Developing our relations with Asia across the board is a major strategic objective for the European Union," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at a news conference after the meeting.

"The European Union has a strong stake in ASEAN's success," she said, referring to the 10-member Association of

Southeast Asian Nations, a potential market of nearly 600 million people.

Unlike in the previous meetings clouded by disagreements on how to deal with ASEAN member Myanmar's poor human rights record, diplomats said this year's gathering marked a fresh chapter in region-to-region ties.

"You can feel it in the atmosphere of the meetings," a Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP.

Over the past year Myanmar's quasi-civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, an ex-general, has taken steps to address criticism about the country's poor human rights record and suppression of political dissent.

It has freed hundreds of political prisoners, eased media restrictions and welcomed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition back into politics.

Myanmar held historic by-elections on April 1 in which Suu Kyi won a seat in parliament, and has floated its currency and signalled it is ready to accept more foreign investment.

Ashton said she will travel to Myanmar on Saturday and open an EU office which would be the "first step" toward establishing a full delegation.

But economists said Europe's economic woes had also spurred the continent to bolster ties with Southeast Asia, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

"The EU economy is in the middle of a protracted economic slump -- which will be Europe's 'lost decade' -- forcing the EU to desperately seek new growth markets for EU exports," said Rajiv Biswas, chief Asia-Pacific economist at IHS Global Insight.

"Secondly, ASEAN has emerged as a more powerful regional bloc," he told AFP.

"For EU companies facing weak growth prospects in their home markets, the ASEAN region is a highly attractive market, with rapid economic growth and a fast-growing consumer middle class."

Justin Harper, market strategist at IG Markets Singapore, said: "Given the government debt crisis within the eurozone, the EU will need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU."

Among the European ministers in Brunei were British Foreign Secretary William Hague and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who also heads to Myanmar this weekend.

Harper said however it was still "early days" and Myanmar needs to do more for ties with the West to fully bloom.

"So while Myanmar is no longer a thorn in the side, the wounds haven't yet healed," Harper said.

ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan meanwhile said in a Twitter message that the EU would sign an ASEAN-initiated non-aggression pact at a July meeting in Cambodia.

The treaty bans signatories from using violence to settle conflicts in the region.

But the bigger prize is that signing the treaty is one condition for entry into the East Asia Summit, a forum of countries including the 10-member ASEAN bloc, China, India, Russia and the United States.

"The European Union wants to be an active and constructive player in Asian regionalism, including by taking part in the East Asia Summit," Ashton said.

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