HUA HIN, Thailand: Southeast Asian leaders launched a widely criticized new human rights body on Friday at a regional summit where they will also grapple with plans for economic and political integration.

Thailand deployed thousands of troops and dozens of armored vehicles for the opening of the meeting in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin, which has twice been postponed by anti-government protests in the past year.

Heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will hold talks before wide-ranging meetings with their counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand at the weekend.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva opened the summit by defending the new rights body against criticism that it is powerless to rein in members that breach its rules, such as Army-ruled Myanmar and communist Vietnam and Laos.

“The establishment of the commission is yet another significant milestone in the evolution of Asean,” Abhisit said after leaders of the 10-member bloc inaugurated the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

Human rights row

But the launch was marred by a row over the barring of civil rights activists from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore who were meant to meet Asean leaders at Hua Hin to discuss the new watchdog.

“This is an outrageous development,” said Debbie Stothard of the independent Asean People’s Forum, which nominated the activists. “It is a rejection of civil society and of the democratic process by which they were selected.”

The rights watchdog has also been criticized for focusing on the promotion of rights rather than actual protection in the region of nearly 600 million people.

The United Nations on Thursday urged leaders to make the commission “credible.” Asean said it would review the body’s powers in five years.

Spotlight on Myanmar

Myanmar is likely to come under the spotlight at the summit for its continued detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, but regularly gets an easier ride from its regional neighbors than the West would like.

The US recently embarked on a major policy shift to reengage Myanmar’s junta after decades of hostility and is planning a rare mission to the country next week.

But at breakfast in his Hua Hin hotel Friday morning, Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win brushed off questions about the visit, saying he did not know the schedule for the trip.

Economy and climate change

Asian leaders at the summit are later expected to turn their attention toward growing economic integration, especially with China, and plans to establish an EU-style economic community by the year 2015.

The leaders will sign a host of agreements on economic and other issues including disaster management, communications and food security in the rapidly changing region.

They are also expected to grapple with climate change and urge rich nations to take on the burden of tackling carbon emissions ahead of a December meeting in Copenhagen, where the world will try to hammer out a new climate treaty.

The Asean summit was originally to be held in the popular tourist destination of Pattaya in April but was called off after anti-government protesters stormed the venue and forced foreign leaders to flee.

Asean and China

In a related development, the Chinese currency yuan was expected to play a bigger role in regional trade as the China-Asean Free Trade Area (CAFTA) was to be realized on January 1, 2010.

“The upcoming CAFTA, which boasts the largest population among all the world’s FTAs [free-trade areas] and allows zero-tariff on 90 percent of products traded between China and Asean, will quicken the process of RMB regionalization,” said Xu Ningning, executive secretary general of China-Asean Business Council during the Sixth China-Asean Expo in Nanning, China.

Free trade demands free flow of currency, making possible the regional use of RMB or yuan, he explained.

The expo, held from October 20 to 24 ahead of the operation of free-trade agreement, attracted state leaders, high-ranking officials and entrepreneurs from inside and beyond the Asean region.

Alongkorn Ponlaboot, deputy minister of commerce of Thailand, believed RMB would play a more important role in bilateral trade between China and Asean in the future.

He said yuan was a very stable currency and expanding its use could help reduce risks faced by the Asean countries in using the US dollar, which has become highly volatile as a result of the global financial crisis.

Pung Kheav Se, general manager of Canadia Bank Plc. of Cambodia, echoed Thailand’s deputy minister, saying that trade between China and Asean kept growing and less risk by the use of RMB would benefit both sides.

Data from China’s General Administration of Customs showed trade between China and Asean totaled $105.88 billion in 2004, and rose to $231.07 billion in 2008. China and Asean are each other’s fourth-largest trade partner. –AFP and Xinhua