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Showing posts for "Laos"

Further Signs of Southeast Asia’s Political Regression

by Joshua Kurlantzick
prayuth-thailand Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha looks on before a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, on April 26, 2016. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

Three new annual reports, from the U.S. State Department, Freedom House, and Reporters without Borders, add further evidence to worries that much of Southeast Asia is experiencing an authoritarian revival. Released this week, Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press report (for which I served as a consultant for several Southeast Asia chapters) reveals that in nearly all the ten ASEAN nations, press freedom regressed significantly last year. Freedom House’s findings are similar those of Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index, which was released earlier this month. Read more »

Thanat Khoman and the Fraying of the U.S.-Thailand Alliance

by Joshua Kurlantzick
prayuth-obama-asean U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-och upon his arrival at Sunnylands for a 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Rancho Mirage, California on February 15, 2016. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Last week, Thanat Khoman, the longtime politician and former foreign minister of Thailand, died of natural causes in Bangkok. He was 102, and one of the last surviving leaders who played a central role in the Indochina Wars of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Thanat was foreign minister between 1959 and 1971, when the spread of communism through Indochina—communist forces had nearly encircled Luang Prabang during the First Indochina War, and communist forces obviously were making gains in Laos and South Vietnam during Thanat’s tenure—terrified the conservative Thai military regime. Read more »

Violence Flares in Laos

by Joshua Kurlantzick
laos-violence-2016 Officials attend the Communist Party Congress in Vientiane, Laos January 21, 2016. (Stringer/Reuters)

Despite its reputation for placidity, and its popularity as a backpacker tourist destination, Laos remains one of the most repressive and politically opaque countries in the world. It is consistently ranked as “not free” by Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World Index, and unlike neighboring Thailand, Cambodia, or even Myanmar during junta rule, Laos has no organized opposition party. In fact, even small public protests in Laos are quickly suppressed, their leaders going missing for years afterward. Read more »

Eight Predictions for Southeast Asia for 2016: Part 1

by Joshua Kurlantzick
prayuth-predictions-2016 Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha smiles as he reviews the honour guard during a welcoming ceremony for Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 18, 2015. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

It’s that time again—time for resolutions that last a couple weeks into the new year and bold predictions that (surely) will turn out right this year. Right?

1. Najib tun Razak will be Malaysia’s Prime Minister at the End of 2016

For most of 2015, many Malaysian politicians, observers, and activists wrote Najib off, sure that the in-fighting within the governing coalition, the scandals around the 1MDB state fund, and the torrent of criticism of Najib by former prime minister Mahathir would ultimately force Najib out of office. They were wrong. Read more »

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 »