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Thai and Cambodian prime ministers fail to end border dispute

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JAKARTA, Indonesia >> Southeast Asian leaders made little headway Sunday in helping Thailand and Cambodia end a deadly border dispute that could undermine peace and stability in the region as it pushes for economic integration.

The prime ministers of the two feuding nations held talks Sunday — mediated by Indonesia’s president — as part of efforts to hammer out a lasting cease-fire.

But neither seemed in any mood to back down.

“There’s no conclusion,” Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told reporters after the trilateral meeting, providing no details. “We’ll need further talks after this.”

Other topics discussed in the two-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, summit included Myanmar’s bid to take over the rotating chair of the regional grouping in 2014 — something that appeared likely despite lingering concerns about human rights abuses, according to a draft statement seen by The Associated Press.

Spiraling food and energy prices and security in the South China Sea also were also on the table.

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.

“We deemed the South China Sea issue, in all its various dimensions, as having the potential to undermine the stability of our region,” according to the draft ASEAN statement.

Member countries agreed to work toward ending a nine-year disagreement with China that has blocked completion of guidelines for an accord aimed at preventing armed conflicts over the disputed islands, it said.

Those guidelines would allow all the claimant nations to pursue joint development projects to ease tensions in the South China Sea region.

The annual meeting between leaders of the 10-member regional grouping was 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 that little can be accomplished without peace and stability between member countries.

To that end, he agreed to mediate talks between the Cambodian and Thai prime ministers about repeated outbreaks of fighting that have killed nearly 20 people in the last two weeks. Another 100,000 have fled 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.

Neither side appeared ready to budge this weekend.

During the plenary session on Saturday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called a demand by Thailand to withdraw troops from the area “irrational and unacceptable.”

“It’s Thailand that has to withdraw its troops from the vicinity,” he said, warning that unless ASEAN stepped in, the border dispute could undermine many of the regional grouping’s loftier goals.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva insisted his country had no ill intention toward his eastern neighbor, but, after three-party talks, reiterated there was little room for outside intervention.

“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.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, who heads the military-backed party that overwhelmingly won general elections late last year, was expected to win approval for his request to chair ASEAN in 2014.

The regional grouping is supposed to rotate the post every year between its 10 member countries.

Myanmar was forced to skip its turn in 2005, however, after coming under heavy pressure from the international community over slow progress on national reconciliation and human rights.

The draft statement said Southeast Asian leaders “consented” to Thein Sein’s proposal.

ASEAN is comprised of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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