Myanmar says time for ASEAN-EU trade deal

PHNOM PENH - Myanmar has asked the European Union to negotiate a free trade pact with ASEAN now that major reforms are underway in the former pariah state, a diplomatic source said Monday.

The source, a ranking trade official asked not to be named, said Yangon made the proposal during a weekend meeting between Association between Southeast Asian Nations economic ministers and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht.

Myanmar's minister of national planning and economic development U Tin Naing Thein said with the improved political situation in his country, the EU should consider discussing a free trade agreement (FTA) with ASEAN as a block, the source told AFP.

"That was also the message of the other ministers - that the market is moving to take advantage of the reforms in Myanmar and that the EU will be left behind if it doesn't act fast," the source added.

He said De Gucht pointed out that the EU was already negotiating FTAs with individual ASEAN states and these could be sewn up into a regional pact after they reach a "critical mass".

In a speech at an EU-ASEAN Business Forum on Sunday, De Gucht said the EU was negotiating FTAs with Malaysia and Singapore and had agreed to launch talks with Vietnam.

"We are making good progress with Malaysia and I am confident that we can soon conclude a deal with Singapore," he said.

This would send "a very important and positive signal to all ASEAN that partnering with Europe is the way forward", he added.

ASEAN and the EU in May 2007 agreed to start FTA talks after years of wrangling over Myanmar's poor human rights record.

But the talks did not take off due largely to issues related the slow pace of democratic reforms in Myanmar, prompting the EU to launch negotiations with separate ASEAN members.

Over the past 12 months however, Myanmar's quasi-civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, has freed hundreds of political prisoners, eased media restrictions and welcomed the opposition back to the political fold.

Weekend by-elections saw the participation of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party National League for Democracy claimed 43 of the 44 seats up for grabs.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

De Gucht said Europe accounts for more than 10 per cent of ASEAN's total trade in goods and commercial services, at 190 billion euros ($254 billion) a year.

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