JANUARY 18, 2007 (STAR) President Arroyo expects 2007 to be a "boom" year for the Philippine economy, with the government moving quickly to spur free enterprise and trade amid strengthening economic indicators and investor confidence in the country.

In a speech delivered at the induction of officers of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX) at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Makati City, Mrs. Arroyo said the recently concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits brought many business and employment opportunities for Filipinos in the country and in the region.

"We have set 2007 as the boom year for the economy," she said. "The sentiments of optimism and hope are rising among the people. Your steady faith in our economy mirrors the confidence of the global financial community."

She said the entire region and the world "behold the valiant excellence of the great Filipino workers including the great Filipino workers in our financial field."

"The Philippines reached high marks in terms of fiscal freedom, trade freedom and freedom from government. We are going fast (through) the restricted hurdles in the economy," she said.

The country’s economic progress would have been speeded up had efforts to amend the Constitution succeeded, she said, "but the direction is clear. A strong and vibrant Philippine democracy under the blessings of economic freedom and free enterprise."

She said the government will increase social payback to the people in terms of important infrastructure projects that will draw more investments and focus social payback expenditures on education, health and microfinance.

Over the last six years, the country’s average self-rated poverty score is now at its lowest since 1986, she added.

"Our ultimate goal of our country is to remove the yoke of poverty, which has pinned us down for centuries, and to join the ranks of first world economies by 2020," the President said.

Mrs. Arroyo described the summits as "most productive" even if they had been held amid regional concerns — such as the nuclear test in North Korea, the political situation in Myanmar, the continuing threat of terror, the energy crunch last year and the disasters that struck the region.

The summits, she said, catalyzed action for regional integration by 2015 — five years ahead of schedule. She said the wave of the future is an open trade system focused on the viability of all its component government, business and human resources.

She instructed the Department of Labor (DOLE) to dovetail the Philippine position on the protection and promotion of the right of migrant workers to the accord on the migrant workers forged during the summit.

The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) will work out the details of the memorandum of understanding of the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asian Growth Area or the expansion of air linkages, Mrs. Arroyo added.

She also directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to dovetail all the Philippine pertinent programs with the Cebu declaration on East Asian energy security.

Mrs. Arroyo said the government will continue to implement the financial and economic reforms that enabled the country to avert a fiscal crisis two years ago. She also said judicious spending will continue to be observed.

She said the government is expecting only an 80-percent collection rate in the implementation of the 12 percent value-added tax, but revenues collected exceeded expectations.

Mrs. Arroyo said the government’s priorities focus on programs that have the greatest impact on the most number of people — such as the use of an Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) loan of $650 million for power sector development.

The government is prioritizing efforts to upgrade and construct new airports, travel and cargo facilities to speed up the transport of goods and people, she said. — Paolo Romero, Christina Mendez

Hard work on Asean charter begins The Philippine Star 01/17/2007

CEBU (AFP) — ASEAN leaders agreed at their summit to a first-ever charter, seen as crucial for shoring up the bloc’s credibility, but analysts question whether the plan is too ambitious to become a reality.

The charter, in principle to be signed later this year, would transform a group known for operating by consensus, and staying out of each other’s affairs, into a rules-based organization along the lines of the European Union.

That would mean punishing member states that violate the rules — and that, analysts say, could spell trouble down the road.

"Drafting the charter will be one of the most challenging things ASEAN has had to do in its 39-year history," said Clarita Carlos, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines.

The bloc has come in for strong criticism for its "softly, softly" approach to military-ruled Myanmar, the most troublesome member of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

While nations bristled at a US bid for UN Security Council pressure on Myanmar — an attempt blocked by China and Russia — ASEAN has at the same time been unable to get the regime to move forward on democracy and human rights.

"We respect the sovereignty of ASEAN members but the essence of regional cooperation is that you contribute part of your national sovereignty for the good of the region," said Jose Abueva, president of Kalayaan College in Manila.

"The charter will be one of the most important achievements of ASEAN," he said, but added that the issue was a "challenge to Myanmar and the whole group."

At last weekend’s summit in the Philippines, the bloc formally adopted a blueprint put together by a group of "eminent persons" from all 10 ASEAN nations.

Now that blueprint will be taken up by a task force charged with putting together a final charter.

According to the blueprint, traditional decision-making by consensus would be retained wherever possible — but members would vote on issues if agreement could not be reached.

Serious breaches of the charter would empower leaders to impose sanctions including suspension or expulsion in extreme cases, but it is unclear if the eventual agreement will go that far.

"This is the real test for ASEAN," said Soedradjad Djiwandono of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

He said he did not think the tough wording of the blueprint would survive when the final agreement comes into being, but insisted that in any case a charter would be "almost like a new milestone for ASEAN."

The group was founded at the height of the Vietnam war in 1967, when the initial five members banded together in an effort to stop the spread of communism in the region.

Since then, communist Vietnam and four other nations, including Myanmar, have joined — and the bloc is now putting heavy emphasis on creating a free-trade zone by 2015 to remain economically competitive in the 21st century.

Supporters of the charter say implementation of EU-style rules and regulations is an essential part of that, which makes the debate that will unfold in the coming year all the more important.

Analysts say ASEAN must also burnish its image among the almost 570 million people it represents. Membership ranges from Singapore, with a per capita GDP of some $28,600, to Laos, where it is around $2,000.

"They have to sell it (ASEAN) to their own people... take it to the grassroots, especially among the poorer members," Carlos said.

She said that while ASEAN leaders concern themselves with creating an eventual single market, they should also prioritize more immediate issues such as poverty.

In Laos, 28 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. In Cambodia it is 33 percent, and in the Philippines, 14 percent.

Whether the group will be able to achieve full economic integration in less than a decade is unclear.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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