No Rice for ASEAN

It’s not just Egypt, the US, and the UK that are on high alert for terrorists these days. Oodles of extra security preparations are in place for the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Ministerial meeting in Vientiane, Laos this week.

This annual security conference is billed as Asia’s largest gathering of politicians. As for the increased security measures, some of them will be startling for the laid back citizens of the usually tranquil Lao capitol. For example: no tuk-tuks (three-wheeled vehicles) will be allowed on the streets of the city center. This would be akin to having San Francisco halt cable car service for the week. In other words: it’s hard to imagine. In addition, all land border crossings - such as the Friendship Bridge that links Laos with Thailand - will be closed. This measure will temporarily prohibit backpackers and other “solo” travelers that aren’t part of a group tour from entering the country. That’s also hard to imagine, but apparently that’s what the government is planning. Meanwhile, Vientiane police are conducting spot-checks on motorists, and authorities have clamped down on travel between Vientiane and outlying provinces in order to “keep out troublemakers.” This appears aimed at Hmong militants and anti-government rebels that have been blamed for a series of minor bombings and other incidents that have occurred on a sporadic basis since early 2000.

Even though the meeting hasn’t yet started, it’s making news for the fact that Condoleezza Rice will not be appearing. Citing “other travel plans” she is skipping the event and sending one of her deputies instead. That may not seem like a big deal but this will be the first time since 1982 that an American Secretary of State has not attended this important Asian gathering. Needless to say, ASEAN members are not happy about Rice’s decision to skip the meeting, seeing her absence as a sign of diminishing US commitment to the region.

One major issue that may be decided at this meeting is whether or not Myanmar (Burma) should be allowed to serve as next year’s host. In the past, ASEAN has used a revolving system that allows each member country (there are ten) to serve as the annual “chairman.” However, in light of that country’s continuing poor human rights record, some members are demanding that Myanmar be skipped in the hosting rotation. Rumor has it that Myanmar may in fact decline the chairmanship in order to avoid further controversy.

Meanwhile, Vientiane is sprucing up its dusty streets, old buildings and historic temples. The pleasantly sleepy town will be doing its best to look its best for the visiting dignitaries. Even a new 14-story hotel – the tallest building in Laos – has opened for the occasion. More than 2,000 participants from 25 countries will be in attendance, along with over 700 media personnel, making this the biggest event to ever hit the poor, land-locked country. And despite Laos’ distinction as being the “most bombed country per capita in the world” (thank the USA and their role in the Vietnam War for that claim to fame), you can be sure that the sweet and friendly Lao people will do their utmost to welcome their guests and make the event run as smoothly as possible.

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