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By Jeremy Laurence
HUA HIN, Thailand (Reuters) - A trade row between Thailand and the Philippines threatened to derail a regional free trade pact on Friday, as hosts Thailand cast tight security over an Asian summit twice postponed due to anti-government protests.
The 10-member Association of South East Nations also launched a human rights watchdog, which critics say is a toothless body already discredited by having military-ruled Myanmar, seen as a serial rights abuser, as part of the mechanism.
Embarrassed by protests at past summits in Thailand, a security force of 18,000 backed by naval gunships have been deployed to the seaside resort of Hua Hin.
Six months ago, hundreds of anti-government protesters broke through security barriers at a summit at Thailand's resort town of Pattaya, forcing some Asian leaders to flee by helicopter and abruptly ending the meeting. Protests at Bangkok's airport last year forced another summit to be abandoned.
ASEAN leaders plan a series of meetings, first among themselves and later with counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand at the weekend.
The fragile global economic recovery kept protectionism at the top of the agenda at the Thai summits.
Thailand, the world's biggest rice exporter, threatened last week to delay an ASEAN free trade pact unless it could get a "fair deal" on tariffs from the Philippines, the world's biggest buyer of the food staple.
Those differences could derail an ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement expected to be signed this weekend, undermining a key plank of an ambitious bid by Southeast Asia and its 540 million people to build an EU-style economic community by 2015.
"It's a very sensitive issue, we're friends, we need to talk this through," Thailand's deputy commerce minister Alongkorn Polabutr told Reuters. A Thai Commerce Ministry spokesman said the signing of agreement was pending ministerial discussions on Saturday. "If they can't agree at the ministerial level, we will escalate it to the leaders' level," Krisda Piampongsant said. "We will try our best to agree on the rice to have the ATIGA signed. But if we can't, it won't be signed."
Officials in Manila said rice had been taken off the agenda at the summit to allow Philippine President Gloria Macapagal to focus on other issues including climate change, disaster relief and human rights.
But Thai officials said it remained on the agenda, noting that it was one of several issues that are crucial for ratification of the Trade in Goods Agreement.
RIGHTS BODY LAUNCH
The new rights watchdog, called the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, has no power to punish members such as military-ruled Myanmar and aims to promote rather than protect human rights.
Non-governmental rights organisations and London-based Amnesty International have expressed concerns over the body, while the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says it has no clear mandate for victims of abuse.
Debbie Stothard of the ASEAN People's Forum said five of the 10 governments had also rejected nominees from civil society groups for the watchdog and have replaced them with their own.
She said observers at Friday's meeting were instructed not to question the leaders.
"It's a big slap in the face for civil society. We are trying to engage with them (ASEAN)," she said. "This situation and the gag order is an irresponsible move by ASEAN governments and it will damage the credibility of the grouping."
ASEAN foreign ministers raised pressure on Myanmar on Thursday to hold "free and fair" elections next year, and urged the junta to free pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The sentencing of Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner detained for 14 of the past 20 years, to a further 18 months of detention this year has prompted Western critics to dismiss next year's polls -- the first in two decades -- as a sham.
The strong security presence appeared to keep protesters at bay, but the anti-government movement at the heart of Thailand's four-year political crisis is still overshadowing the summit.
On Wednesday, neighbour Cambodia offered fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra asylum. Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup, heavily influences a red-shirted, anti-government protest movement from exile in Dubai. Thailand is seeking to extradite him to serve a jail term for corruption.
About 100 "red-shirts"' protested about 40 km (25 miles) north of the summit venue but about twice as many police monitored their movements.
(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan, Jason Szep, John Ruwitch; Editing by Paul Tait)

Reuters