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Asia: ASEAN Regional Forum Aims to Block Terrorist Financing

Foreign ministers from countries in the security umbrella group of the Asian-Pacific region gathered in Brunei today for a forum focusing on the roots of terrorism and ways to cut terrorist finances. RFE/RL looks at the substance of the summit, as well as the significance of a meeting on the sidelines between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his North Korean counterpart.

Prague, 31 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Asian-Pacific region's security umbrella group, the ASEAN Regional Forum, took steps today toward building an intelligence network aimed at cutting off funds used by terrorist groups.

Foreign ministers from the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations joined their 13 security partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum, including the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China, by signing the accord.

Brunei's foreign minister, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, said a great deal of time was spent today discussing the impact of terrorism in the region and how countries represented at the forum can work together against it. "We approved the ARF [ASEAN Regional Forum] statement on measures against terrorism financing, so we are starting to deal with the problem politically and financially, as well as by direct action," Bolkiah said.

The agreement includes a series of measures to tighten banking controls and create financial intelligence units in each country that would enhance information sharing. It includes a pledge of technical assistance to countries that need help implementing the necessary laws, regulations, and policies to put the agreement into action.

Members of the regional forum also promised to work with the International Monetary Fund and groups like the Basle Committee of Banking Supervisors to prevent terrorist financing and money laundering.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign-policy and security chief, welcomed the agreement. He called it a positive step toward stopping the flow of money to terrorist organizations and addressing the question of the relationship between money laundering and terrorism.

A joint statement issued by the ASEAN Regional Forum says all 23 members have agreed to "freeze without delay the assets of terrorists and their associates and close their access to the international financial system."

The finance agreement comes ahead of a broader counterterrorism accord that is due to be signed tomorrow by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and ministers from the 10 countries in ASEAN.

But some critics are questioning whether that agreement can be implemented in a way that will have a significant impact on fighting terrorism.

John Brandon, associate director of the Washington-based Asia Foundation, writes in today's "International Herald Tribune" that the Regional Forum has earned a reputation as a "talk shop" since its inception in 1993. He says previous forums have seen bold statements made without any effective follow-up action.

As an example, Brandon cites what he calls ASEAN's failed efforts to tackle issues such as the smuggling of refugees, drugs and weapons; pollution caused by forest fires in Indonesia; money laundering; and the proliferation of HIV/AIDS.

But since the attacks of 11 September in the United States, Southeast Asia has emerged as one of the main stages in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

In the Philippines, officials are investigating how Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group linked to Al-Qaeda, receives its funds. They are also trying to discover the financial safe havens for large ransoms previously received by Abu Sayyaf in exchange for scores of foreign and Philippine hostages. The ransoms reportedly have been paid by families and corporations.

Malaysia and Singapore also have arrested scores of suspected member of the Jemaah Islamiah militant group, another extremist organization with ties to Al-Qaeda.

Earlier today on the sidelines of the Brunei gathering, the diplomatic spotlight was focused on an informal 15-minute meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun.

The meeting was the first between high-level officials of the two countries since January, when U.S. President George W. Bush declared North Korea part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran.

In addition to Powell, the list of officials scheduled to meet Paek in Brunei includes the foreign ministers of Japan, Thailand, Australia, and Brunei.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar was among those welcoming the apparent diplomatic thaw toward North Korea. "The U.S. has given their undertaking. They are quite willing to sit down and discuss with the North Koreans. Japan is [having] dialogue with the North Koreans. I think this is encouraging because the reduction of tension is an important element for peace and security," Albar said.

The EU's Solana said Paek's talks with Powell and other foreign ministers indicate that the stalled diplomatic initiative toward North Korea may be "unblocking."

Kim Sung-Han is an analyst at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul. He said that while the Powell-Paek meeting was informal, it should be regarded as a starting point for the resumption of dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

Albar said the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan was also on the agenda of today's ASEAN Regional Forum. "We also discussed about the South Asian situation. Even though there are signs of a tremendous reduction of tension [between India and Pakistan], there are still concerns about it. So we hope both sides are able to resolve the issue and reduce tension in that area," Albar said.

While India is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, Pakistan is not. A top Indian official who wished to remain anonymous said today that New Delhi will block any attempt to bring Pakistan into the security forum until Islamabad "becomes a democratic state and stops using terrorism as a tool of state policy."

ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The broader ASEAN Regional Forum includes all 10 ASEAN states, along with Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.