The 38th meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) started in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, on Tuesday, which is expected to focus on issues like Fiji situation and review of regional cooperation.
During the two-day meeting, leaders or officials from the region will review the progress of the Pacific Plan, a new vision for closer regional cooperation and integration, and the Regional Institutional Framework, which is the means in which various regional organizations work with one another.
At the opening ceremony, Papua New Guiean Prime Minister Michael Somare, who is the PIF's current interim chairman, spoke highly of the Pacific Plan, saying it will help boost the regional development and improve the well-being of the local peoples.
Meanwhile, he also called for respect of sovereignty and rights of member countries in regional cooperation, reflecting some long- time concerns from small countries with the role of Australia and New Zealand in regional affairs.
Nearly one-third of the members' heads of state or government are missing the forum for various reasons.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who has called for a national election, has sent Foreign Minister Alexander Downer instead, while the Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu are also represented at lower level at the forum.
Solomon Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare boycotted the forum over the issue of a regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands.
The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was set up in 2003 to help the Solomon Islands' government restore law and order, strengthen government institutions, reduce corruption and reinvigorate the economy. But the Solomon Islands' government has criticized the Australian-led mission for interference in domestic affairs and is dissatisfied with a Forum review of the mission.
Somare expressed appreciation over the contribution by forum members to RAMSI and his hope that the forum will reach a good understanding of the Solomons' issue and the future of RAMSI.
Among the leaders attending the forum is Fiji's military government Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who took power in a coup last December and evoked strong criticism from other forum members, particularly Australian and New Zealand. He has said he is looking forward to dialogs with other forum leaders.
Somare expressed the hope that "the leaders can work together to find a way" on the Fiji issue.
The Pacific Islands Forum, founded in 1971, is an inter- governmental organization which aims to enhance cooperation between the states in the South Pacific represent their interests. It now groups 16 nations, namely Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Niue, Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
(Xinhua News Agency October 16, 2007)