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Showing posts for "Laos"

Laos Returns North Korean Refugees to the North

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Protesters from a human rights group hold signs during a rally against Laos' recent repatriation of nine North Korean defectors, in front of the Laotian embassy in Seoul on May 31, 2013. (Kim Hong-Ji/Courtesy Reuters) Protesters from a human rights group hold signs during a rally against Laos' recent repatriation of nine North Korean defectors, in front of the Laotian embassy in Seoul on May 31, 2013. (Kim Hong-Ji/Courtesy Reuters)

On Saturday, the Washington Post ran a front-page article on the story of North Korean refugees, or defectors, in Laos. It has been well-known for years that many North Koreans who try to get to South Korea transit through either Laos, Thailand, or Cambodia after leaving China. But until recently the government of Laos, though hard-line authoritarian, mostly seemed to ignore the fleeing North Koreans, as long as they had the money to pay off the right people and then get to the South Korean embassy in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, or to the border with Thailand. Yet in May, Laos’ government suddenly sent nine fleeing North Koreans, nearly all of whom are orphans, back to the North. The group had been detained by Laos’ security forces, but in the past North Koreans who had been detained often were let go, in exchange for cash, and then continued on to Thailand or to the South Korean embassy. This time,Laos’ government did not release the detainees, instead handing them over to Pyongyang. Read more »

Presidential Inbox: Balancing the Pivot with Supporting Human Rights

by Joshua Kurlantzick
President Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term as President of the United States in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington, DC January 20, 2013. President Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term as President of the United States in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington, DC January 20, 2013 (Brendan Smialowski/Courtesy Reuters).

Mr. President, as you start your second term, you have made clear that you will continue the “pivot” to Asia, which includes moving military assets to the Asian theater, bolstering relations with Asian partners, and generally re-establishing the United States as the major Pacific presence. Your new secretary of state, John Kerry, is a longtime advocate of closer ties with mainland Southeast Asia. Within the State Department and Pacific Command, support for the “pivot” is strong as well. Read more »

The True Face of Laos

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Laos honor guards and members of military orchestra sit behind guns as they prepare to welcome another foreign delegation arriving at Vientiane airport. Laos honor guards and members of military orchestra sit behind guns as they prepare to welcome another foreign delegation arriving at Vientiane airport.

The tiny country of Laos does not normally get much attention from policymakers or the international media, at least since the Vietnam War; but in Obama’s first term, the administration put a focus on Laos as one of the Mekong Region countries with which Washington would push for closer relations. This push came partly to reaffirm the United States’ presence in mainland Southeast Asia, which had diminished during the Bush administration, in part because of apathy, and in part because of sanctions and restrictions on relations with several Mekong nations. Read more »

The Moral Blindspot in Obama’s Pivot

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta walks alongside U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd and U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN David Carden as he tours Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia November 16, 2012. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta walks alongside U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd and U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN David Carden as he tours Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia November 16, 2012 (Saul Loeb/Courtesy Reuters).

While much has been written about President Obama’s recent tour of Southeast Asia, less attention has been paid to the simultaneous visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the region.  On November 15, during a stopover in Bangkok, Panetta reaffirmed the United States longstanding military ties with Thailand with a new agreement, the 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-U.S. Defense Alliance. The next day, the United States also reiterated its military ties with Cambodia during a meeting between Secretary Penetta and Cambodia’s defense minister, General Tea Banh. Read more »

Dams on the Mekong Continue, Under or Over the Radar

by Joshua Kurlantzick
A man casts a fishing net on the banks of the Mekong river. A man casts a fishing net on the banks of the Mekong river (Samrang Pring/Courtesy Reuters).

Reports this week that Laos has decided to continue building the Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong river, despite massive protests and many studies showing detrimental environmental impacts, reveals once again that, when it comes to the Mekong, the governments involved pay little attention to popular or scientific opinion. The U.S. government this week openly, and unusually bluntly, criticized Laos’ decision to continue with the work, but I doubt this critique is going to have any impact either. Read more »

Hillary Clinton Goes to Laos

by Joshua Kurlantzick
U.S. Secretary of State Clinton talks to a disabled boy at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise visitor center in Vientiane. U.S. Secretary of State Clinton talks to a disabled boy at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise visitor center in Vientiane (Phoonsab Thevongsa/Courtesy Reuters).

Vientiane, capital of Laos, is one of the quietest cities I have ever been to, though it has more of a nightlife these days than it did when I first started going, in 1999, and the whole town seemed to shut down at around 6 p.m., save a few open-air bars by the Mekong River where people could go and have snacks of grilled chicken and sticky rice and tall bottles of Beer Lao on ice. Still, the visit this week of Hillary Clinton was one of the biggest events for the Lao capital in years, equivalent to ASEAN meetings and the Southeast Asia Games. Read more »

When Will Thaksin Return?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra greets the media upon his arrival at the Siem Reap International Airport in Cambodia, April 14, 2012. Thailand's fugitive former premier Thaksin took some small but symbolic steps towards the fringes of his homeland on Wednesday after five years in exile. Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra greets the media upon his arrival at the Siem Reap International Airport in Cambodia, April 14, 2012. Thailand's fugitive former premier Thaksin took some small but symbolic steps towards the fringes of his homeland on Wednesday after five years in exile. (Samrang Pring/Courtesy Reuters)

A spate of articles over the past week has highlighted the growing possibility that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra will soon return to Thailand from exile. During a recent visit to Laos, just across the border from the Thai Northeast, Thaksin told supporters that he is going to return to Thailand within the next three or four months, in time for his birthday. As The Economist noted last week, his recent visit to Laos had all the trappings of a state visit, with high security, crowds of supporters, and the highest-level audiences with the Lao government. Thaksin has also increasingly dropped the façade that he is “retired” from politics, though he continues to insist that he is not interested in returning to the premiership. Read more »

In Southeast Asia, Big Dams Raise Big Concerns

by Joshua Kurlantzick
A view from upstream of Malaysia's Bakun dam, in the inland of the eastern state of Sarawak on Borneo island, December 11, 2003.

A view from upstream of Malaysia's Bakun dam, in the inland of the eastern state of Sarawak on Borneo island, December 11, 2003. (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Prashanth Parameswaran, a former researcher at the Project 2049 Institute, who is currently conducting research on dam projects in Southeast Asia.

These past few weeks have not been good ones for large dam projects in Southeast Asia. Big hydropower projects have been caught in a web of unsafe corporate practices, fierce political violence and simmering regional tensions.

On June 9, another round of fighting erupted in Burma’s northern Kachin state, where Chinese companies are building a series of dams to power southern China. Dozens were killed, hundreds of Chinese workers were evacuated, and thousands of civilians fled the affected area. The political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic minority armed group in Burma which has clashed repeatedly with the government, has also fiercely opposed the construction of a large dam in Myistone, a culturally and ecologically sensitive area. In fact, the group sent an open letter to the Chinese government in March to stop the dam’s construction, warning of the risk of civil war.

It is not clear what exactly prompted this latest outbreak of fighting. Some claim that the Burmese government wants to ensure that the project is built so it will receive hundreds of millions in annual power sales, while others contend that the military is using it as a pretext to exert control in the northern areas which have resisted its control. What is clear is that the dam projects are exacerbating internal conflict due to concerns regarding the distribution of benefits, damage to the environment and displacement of local populations.

Read more »