Monday, April 21, 2008

China's 'Freighter of Death' for Zimbabwe: the An Yue Jiang

Updates for April 24th - 18:44 CET

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer has arrived in South Africa and has forcefully stated the following during a press conference :

Tsvangarai won Zimbabwe election, says U.S. official (CNN, AP)

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer was speaking in South Africa at the start of a visit to increase international pressure on Robert Mugabe's government, AP reported.

"We think in this situation we have a clear victor," she told AP, responding to questions about whether a power-sharing agreement could resolve the election impasse.

"Morgan Tsvangirai won and perhaps outright, at which point you don't need a government of national unity. You have to accept the result.

"There may need to be a political solution, a negotiated solution."

Chinese arms shipment for Zimbabwe being recalled to China

Several news agencies are reporting that the deadly cargo of Chinese-made arms and munitions on board the COSCO freighter 'An Yue Jiang' is being recalled to China ASAP. This is great news (if it can be verified to be really true) and it shows that even the PRC must bow to international pressure when enough pressure is being applied from all corners of the globe.

The New York Times reports that the Zimbabwe-bound ship heads back to China after being refused entry into ports all along the southern Africa coast, while Germany's Spiegel Online (international edition) reports that Germany's federal bank for development aid (KfW) had issued a seizure order against the arms shipment in Durban, South Africa due to the Zimbabwe government's non-payment of an outstanding loan of more than USD $60 million (approx. 40 million Euros). Read the April 22nd article 'Mugabe's Deadly Cargo: German Bank Attempted to Seize Chinese Arms Ship'. reports that representatives from the German development bank KfW Group have since refuted that claim, saying it all was a terrible mistake by one of their 'loose cannon' collection agents based in South Africa. Germany, France, and other EU countries have to be rather careful with the government in Beijing these days according to this report at Speigel Online 'Balancing Tibet and Trade: EU Delegation Faces Difficult Tightrope in China'.

Beijing and PRC Chinese Bloggers Fight Back

China's state-owned news agency Xinhua reports on the An Yue Jiang scandal in the China Daily online 'China arms trade conforms to international laws and international obligations' while Global Voices Online over at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center has a roundup of Chinese bloggers commenting on the shipment of arms to Zimbabwe 'China: Netizens defend Zimbabwe arms sales'. Not much sympathy for democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe from that bunch.

That's all the updates for today folks. Thanks to everyone who did their bit to help stop that shipment of arms and munitions to Ol' Bob.

Original post from April 22nd

O.K., I’ve spent enough time over the past few days raising Hell at other people’s blogs about the Chinese arms shipment to Robert Mugabe and now it’s time to get down to business. How can the global blogger community together with concerned citizens of the world help stop a shipment of deadly Chinese arms and munitions to one of Africa’s most deranged and brutal dictators? Answer: by working together to hold high a Torch of Truth and Justice that can drive back the lies, the naked fear, and the darkness.

The Story about a Chinese Freighter of Death: The An Yue Jiang

Surely by now many of you have heard the news about the shipment of Chinese arms for the regime in Zimbabwe. In the wake of last month’s stolen elections in Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe’s “
all-weather Nr. 1 friends in Beijing” decided that they needed to increase protection of their vast financial and political interests in the southern African country. For some reason the government of China feels that bullets instead of bread and other food staples is what the people of Zimbabwe need, a country where millions of people are facing mass starvation and some have been reduced to killing and eating rats.

About one week ago a rust bucket of a Chinese freighter arrived at the South African sea port of Durban, loaded with seventy-seven tons of munitions and arms for the Zimbabwean Ministry of Defence. The name of the ship: the An Yue Jiang. The freighter is owned and operated by COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company, Beijing PRC).
Sky News aerial video of the ship of doom. If you live near a container harbor or have travelled along a highway anywhere in the world you will have seen the name COSCO written on the sides of freight containers from China. COSCO, a state-owned Chinese shipping conglomerate, owns more than 600 ocean merchant vessels operating in over 140 countries around the globe.

The shipment of arms and munitions from the People’s Republic of China would have gone unnoticed as so many arms shipments through South Africa to Zimbabwe have done over the last two decades if it were not for an alert and courageous “concerned citizen” and the investigative follow-up by a local editor at South Africa’s
Noseweek magazine, not to be confused with Newsweek magazine. According to statements made by Noseweek editor Martin Welz who obtained a copy of the ship’s cargo manifest, the consignment for the Government of Zimbabwe included the following:

3 million+ rounds of ammunition for Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles
1500 rocket-propelled grenades (RPG’s)
3500 mortar rounds, mortar tubes
Ejection seats and other spare parts for Chinese-made fighter aircraft

Upon leaking the news about the arms shipment to the South African public and SAPA (SA Press Association) all hell broke loose in Durban and in Pretoria. Quick action by civic organizations such as the
Southern Africa Litigation Centre and the head of South Africa’s powerful trade union SATAWU (South African Transport and Allied Worker’s Union) prevented the offloading and transit shipment of arms and munitions to Zimbabwe. In addition, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) together with the Open Society Institute and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa and other regional organizations lodged complaints with the South African Government to prohibit the transport of Chinese arms to Zimbabwe.

Last week, while visiting New York for a special meeting of the UN Security Council, South African President Thabo Mbeki
sunk deeper into controversy over his very poor handling of the crisis in Zimbabwe. Mbeki made the following statements when queried by reporters at the UNSC press briefing of April 16th about the Chinese shipment of arms for Mugabe:

Quote of the Week April 13th–19th:
Thabo Mbeki, President of the Republic of South Africa

Question: Mr President, a shipment of weapons from China en-route to Zimbabwe has been found in a Durban harbour?

Answer: Well, ask the Chinese Ambassador. Durban harbour handles goods for many countries on the continent. If you say there are weapons that have arrived from China in the Durban Harbour, I think you should ask the Chinese. There might be a consignment of coal that is being exported to the Congo or something, it is a port, those weapons would have had nothing to do with South Africa. I really don't know what Zimbabwe imports from China or what China imports from Zimbabwe.

PoliticsWeb (South Africa)
Full Transcript of President Thabo Mbeki’s UNSC press conference April 16, 2007

There you have it. The
Chinese Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa has the lowdown on all shipments of Chinese goods through South Africa to Zimbabwe. The President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, doesn’t have a clue about what types of goods transit his country enroute to neighboring landlocked countries. This of course is a damn lie. It is almost a bigger lie than the one reported in The Economist’ article “Crisis (in Zimbabwe)? What crisis?” Mbeki’s reputation as a fair and competent 'point man' for international negotiations to settle the political and humanitarian crisis inside Zimbabwe is in the toilet.

Second Best Quote(s) of the Week April 13th-19th:
Zimbabwe’s Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga (Zimbabwe’s version of comical Ali) responding to queries from Reuters:

Zimbabwe's deputy information minister, Bright Matonga, said on Friday that no party had the right to stop the shipment.

"Every country has got a right to acquire arms. There is nothing wrong with that. If they are for Zimbabwe, they will definitely come to Zimbabwe," he told South Africa's SAFM radio.

"How they are used, when they are going to be used is none of anybody's business."

For its part, China is trying to prevent the controversy from fuelling criticism over its human rights record and rule in Tibet ahead of hosting the Olympics in August. Violent protests have followed the Olympic torch across the globe.

China's Foreign Ministry said in a short faxed statement to Reuters that it had seen the reports about the ship, but "did not understand the actual situation".

"China and Zimbabwe maintain normal trade relations. What we want to stress is China has always had a prudent and responsible attitude towards arms sales, and one of the most important principles is not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries," the statement said.

Read more at Reuters India
“Zimbabwe arms ship heads for Angola, Mozambique says” (04/19/08)

If you give a damn about the future of Zimbabwe, speak out forcefully

The Number One Problem at the moment is tracking and locating the position of the COSCO freighter of death, the An Jue Jiang.
The people over at Sokwanele who publish the excellent ‘This is Zimbabwe’ blog have organized a “Stop the An Yue Jiang” global action campaign. Since early this afternoon bloggers and readers from around the world have been leaving comments and advice on how to help stop this deadly arms shipment, including ways to track the freighter as it slinks its way along the southern Africa coastline making sure to stay safely in international waters.

IANSA has begun a petition to collect names and email addresses to do the same, to stop the Chinese freighter An Yue Jiang from delivering weapons to Zimbabwe. Also, as of this morning international trade unions representing dock workers and longshoreman in countries around the globe have begun to join the effort to stop this shipment of bullets for Mugabe, a force of tens-of-thousands of blue collar workers that even the mighty Red Army is afraid to go up against. Longshoreman around the globe teaming up with bloggers? This must be another first in the history of the blogosphere and online social networks.

While the international news media is focused on the Countdown to Beijing and the next stop for the Olympic Farce Relay and worldwide protests against China’s human rights record (and the “I Love China No Matter What” counter- protests), an important and tense drama is playing out on the high seas of the South Atlantic. The regime in Beijing and their partners in African capitals, the bankers and global financial investors and businesspeople, politicians and political partners of the PRC would love for this latest Chinese Arms for Zimbabwe scandal to go away quietly.

Focusing on news about the row over the Olympic Games and the Chinese crackdown on Tibet is fine. Protesting against Beijing’s dubious support for the murderous regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan is the correct thing to do. Raising hell about China’s support for the brutal military rulers of Burma re: their crackdowns on innocent monks and civilians in the desperate country is also the right thing to do. Just don’t forget about the people of Zimbabwe who are facing continuing years of misery and brutal, repressive rule by an octogenarian despot who refuses to accept the democratic vote of no confidence delivered by Zimbabwean voters last month under threats and violence.

Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are facing death by starvation and state-sanctioned terror and brutality at the hands of Robert Mugabe’s thugs and goons. China’s ambassadors and diplomatic corps in Africa,
its soldiers and military advisors seen patrolling the streets in Mutare and Chinese soldiers based at undisclosed locations within the country, will simply look on while protecting China’s economic and political interests in Zimbabwe. After all, for the regime in Beijing and for too many of the 750,000 Chinese merchants and workers in Africa today, business is business. It’s a win-win situation for everybody, isn’t it?

Related articles and online resources
Bloggers and independent media at the front

This is Zimbabwe – Sokwanele Civic Action Support Group
Action: Stop the An Yue Jiang from delivering Chinese weapons to Mugabe, 04/21/08
We call them guns, Mugabe calls them ‘campaign materials’, 04/18/08
Chinese soldiers seen in Mutare, 04/16/08
Archived updates on the An Yue Jiang

China Digital Times (independent news and editorials about China)
Chinese troops are on the streets of Zimbabwean city, witness says – 04/19/08
China’s small arms sales to Sudan increased as Darfur violence escalated – 03/13/08
EU Parliament disinvests in Petrochina/CNPC over China’s funding of Sudan regime – 03/16/08
If you build it, they will come (Mozambique) – 03/31/08
China Returns to Africa: A Superpower and a Continent Embrace (book review), 04/19/08

My Heart’s in Accra (Ethan Zuckerman)
Watching, Waiting – 04/18/08
Zimbabwe: the endless endgame – 04/17/08

Global Voices Online
Zimbabwe: Chinese troops in Mutare? – 04/20/08

SW Africa Radio (UK) – the independent voice of Zimbabwe on shortwave radio

Now Public
Mugabe: Chinese Military is a Welcome Ally on the Streets of Zimbabwe, 04/19/08

The Zimbabwean Pundit
Politics of change and change of politics: Zim elections ’08 – 04/11/08

The Word Wright (South Africa)
The China-Zimbabwe Arms Deal: a storm in a teacup or the tip of the iceberg? – 04/19/08

The International Mainstream Media & Press

The New York Times
Zimbabwe Arms Shipped by China Spark an Uproar, 04/19/08

The Mail & Guardian (South Africa)
Ship with Arms for Zimbabwe Leaves Durban after Court Ruling, 04/19/08
Zille: Don’t Give Chinese Arms to Zimbabwe, 04/18/08 (South Africa)
Zimbabwe Generals Meet over Arms Shipment, 04/21/08

The Guardian (UK) – Comment is Free
Mugabe’s Gall is Breathtaking by Guguletho Moyo, 04/18/08
Chinese ship carries arms cargo to Mugabe regime, 04/18/08

The International Herald Tribune
South Africa and Zimbabwe: The Silence of Mbeki – 04/17/08

Zimbabwean Journalists (independent journalists based in the UK)
Union in South Africa Refuses to Offload Zimbabwean Arms, 04/17/08
Zimbabwe buys fighter jets from China, 08/22/06

Times Online (UK)
Dockers refuse to unload China arms shipment for Zimbabwe, 04/18/08

BBC News
Zimbabwe arms ship quits South Africa, 04/19/08

Reuters India
Zimbabwe arms ship heads for Angola, Mozambique says – 04/19/08

The Economist (UK)
Zimbabwe: Crisis? What Crisis? – 04/17/08
Zimbabwe: Africa’s Shame – 04/17/08

Zimbabwe arms ship headed for Angola, 04/19/08
South Africa won’t block Chinese weapons for Zimbabwe, 04/17/08
How Long Will Mugabe Hang On? – 04/03/08

Foundations and organizations and government resources

Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)
Zimbabwe eager to strengthen economic ties with China – 09/28/06

IANSA (International Action Network on Small Arms)
Stop the Zimbabwe Arms Shipment petition
SADC must detain Chinese arms to Zimbabwe, 04/14/08

Open Society Institute –
Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa
Eyes on Zimbabwe special program, Eyes on Zimbabwe blog

The Jamestown Foundation
Zimbabwe: China’s African Ally, 07/05/05

Archived (older) related news articles

PBS Frontline World
Congo: On the trail of an AK-47, China’s Calling Card in Africa, 08/30/07

SW Africa Radio (UK) – the independent voice of Zimbabwe on shortwave radio
(Zimbabwe’s) Purchase of Chinese Fighter Jets Makes Mockery of UN Humanitarian Appeal, 08/30/06

New Zimbabwean
Mugabe spends $200 million on new fighter jets, 11/03/06

The Times Online (UK)
The sumptuous retirement mansion Mugabe has no intention of using, 03/30/05

Sokwanele (Zimbabwe Civil Support organization)
Mugabe and His Cronies Living Large at Expense of the Masses, 09/14/04

The Telegraph (UK)
Mugabe’s new palace in the land of hunger, 08/26/03

Additional resources about the historical maritime figure Admiral Zheng He

This is a story about the great
Ming Dynasty explorer Admiral Zheng He as described so eloquently by the distinguished Chinese scholar Dr. Jin Wu.

The An Yue Jiang is a far cry from the
technological genius of Admiral Zeng He’s treasure ships (PBS Nova video), but then again, China ruled under the Great Ming emperors was a very different place from the China we know today.

UCLA International Institute
Zheng He’s Voyages of Discovery

National Geographic
China’s Great Armada and Admiral Zeng He (July 2005)

PBS Nova –
Sultan’s Lost Treasure (January 2001)

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Laos: A Cry to Heaven Part 3 - Geopolitics & Money

Note: I was getting really bummed out for several days in trying to successfully bring this sad story about the Lao Hmong to an end and press on with new material. But then I read some news today about the continuing struggles of desperate people trying to escape the oppressive regime in Burma (CNN) only to lose their lives through suffocation in an overheated, abandoned freight container at the Thai border. The independent Thai newspaper The Nation (Bangkok) has a good editorial about the tragedy “Deaths of Burmese bring shame on us”. The Irrawady news magazine published an earlier report titled “Migrants are Not Commodities” about Thailand’s love-hate relationship with illegal and legal migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. Human trafficking for prostitution and dirt cheap (slave) labor is becoming a huge problem down in paradise.

The Lao Hmong refugees featured in this series of posts have been on the run since 1975 after suffering decades of civil war and the loss of over one third of their people, and they continue to fight for their lives to this very day. Who am I to think that I should give up on their story when they have been able to hold on for so long?

One thing that I have learned about this little known humanitarian crisis is that nothing is as simple as it seems. The historical and cultural relationships between the various ethnic groups of the Mekong region, the way governments function domestically and interact with neighboring countries, the geo-politics of foreign governments and international aid and development organizations, foreign investors and businesspeople: all play an important role in the lives of “the forgotten veterans” and the 500 million other people living in SE Asia today.

So let’s press on, shall we, and see where this interesting story leads us.

Part 3 of “Laos: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants”
Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series

The growing political and economic relationships between the Lao PDR, China, Thailand, and Burma (Myanmar) have been garnering attention in the international press over the past several months, especially after the successful conclusion of the Greater Mekong Sub-region Summit in Vientiane, Laos in March. According to an April 7th Associated Press article, Laos Fears China’s Footprint, the People’s Republic of China has been the subject of deep concern among citizens in the Lao capital Vientiane. Their angst is over a dubious “land for loans” deal between the Lao regime and the Chinese government in exchange for building a new sports complex on prime natural wetlands on the outskirts of the Lao capital. Reuters reports these same fears extend to villagers living in rural parts of the country because of growing foreign investment in rubber plantations and the agri-business sector. The Lao Deputy Prime Minister was forced to give a rare public news conference in February to defuse Vientiane residents’ fears of a “Chinese invasion”. KPL Lao News Agency had reported that a rumored 50,000 Chinese workers were poised to move into the capital city of 460,000 residents.

This has not been a good week for China in the world press and international news media as we all know, and to make matters worse India is continuing to move in on China’s economic and political territory in Southeast Asia.

So where does America and other countries fit into this picture of renewed economic growth and progress toward better governance in the Mekong region? I would have guessed that the U.S. has little influence over certain Mekong countries due to the terrible legacy of the Vietnam War and thorny issues such as UXO (unexploded ordnance) cleanup and MIA/POW’s. The same legacy would presumably apply to France (1st Indochina War) and America’s close allies in the Vietnam War: South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand.

Presuming that the U.S.A. has limited political and economic leverage with key GMS countries (Vietnam, Laos and Burma) would be logical, but ill informed. Here are two views from one well know Southeast Asian scholar that tell a different story.

Shifting Alliances and Economic Opportunity in Southeast Asia
(Continued from Part 2)

China is very eager to increase trade with the GMS countries and expand its influence there. In a report published in 2005 by Dr. Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, he states the following:

China and Vietnam's Tug of War over Laos by Dr. Ian Storey
AsiaMedia newsletter at UCLA Asia Institute – June 7, 2005

In at least one Southeast Asian country -- Laos -- the competition for influence is not between the US and China, but between historic rivals China and Vietnam, writes Ian Storey

Much has been written on the competition for influence in Southeast Asia among the Great Powers, particularly the United States and China, and how Beijing has made significant inroads in this respect over the past few years. However, in at least one Southeast Asian country – Laos – the competition for influence is not between the U.S. and China, but between historic rivals China and Vietnam. The United States is not a major player in Laos – its interests are narrowly focused on resolving Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) issues left over from the Vietnam War, and securing Laotian cooperation in the "war on terrorism." In fact, until December 2004 Laos was one of only three countries (the other two being North Korea and Cuba) denied Normal Trade Relations (NTR) with the United States. Although Japan is the largest provider of aid to Laos, it has not translated this largesse into political influence.

The Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) is a small, underdeveloped country situated in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia. As the only landlocked country in the region, it is bordered by China, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia. Subsistence farming employs more than 80 percent of its 5.7 million people, reducing Laos to the status of one of the poorest countries in Asia. Laos is ranked 135th in the United Nation's 2004 Human Development Index of 177 countries, the lowest of any member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Laos joined in 1997. The LPDR has a per capita income of around $300.

Laos is one of only five remaining communist countries in the world. Since its foundation in December 1975, the LPDR has been ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). For the first decade of its existence, Laos had a "special relationship" with Vietnam which was built on the close links forged between the LPRP and Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in the 1930s. These links enabled Hanoi to exercise a controlling influence over the Lao communist movement during the "thirty years struggle" (1945-1975), despite the fact that Beijing essentially underwrote the Pathet Lao's (the LPRP's military wing) war effort. In 1977, Laos and Vietnam entered an alliance which caused severe strains in Lao-PRC relations. These strains were exacerbated in 1978 when Laos supported Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia.

From the mid-1980s, however, Laos sought to decrease its dependence on Vietnam by reaching out to the United States, China, and ASEAN countries. Vientiane's motive was primarily economic: aid from the USSR and Vietnam was drying up, and Laos looked to more economically advanced countries to help rejuvenate the moribund economy. In the post-Cold War era, three countries dominate Lao foreign relations: Vietnam, Thailand, and China.

Although Vietnam is no longer the cornerstone of Lao foreign policy, close personal relations between Laotian and Vietnamese leaders have ensured the survival of the "special relationship." It was Hanoi that enabled the LPRP to achieve power, something elderly LPRP cadres are not apt to forget. Although the 1977 alliance was allowed to lapse in 2002, the two countries continue to maintain close security links. Vietnam is also Laos' second biggest trading partner.

Thailand's interests in Laos are predominantly economic. Prior to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, cultural and linguistic advantages enabled Thailand to establish itself as Laos' primary economic partner. However, this situation was not met with unbridled enthusiasm by the Lao government, which feared becoming over-dependent on the Thai economy. These fears proved prescient; when the Thai economy buckled in mid-1997, the ripple effect on Laos in terms of lost trade and investment was severe. Nevertheless, Thailand remains Laos' leading trade partner, taking nearly 50 percent of its exports. But Bangkok's political influence is limited since Laotians perceive Thais to be overbearing and arrogant, and Lao nationalism tends to orient itself against Thailand.

In 1988, Beijing and Vientiane normalized relations, and since the Asian Financial Crisis China's profile in the LPDR has increased considerably. China's interests in Laos are threefold. The first is China's strategic imperative of fostering close relations with all countries along its borders. Beijing's ultimate aim is to displace the political influence of other countries in Laos, primarily Vietnam but also Thailand. Second, Laos' geographic position makes it a useful conduit through which Chinese goods from its Southwest provinces can flow into the Thai market. Since 2000, Beijing has paid special attention to the development of Laos' transportation infrastructure, particularly highways linking China with Thailand. Vientiane itself has been keen to promote itself as a "landlinked" country rather than a landlocked one, though it recognizes that China and Thailand stand to gain the most. Third, the PRC has expressed a strong desire to increase imports of natural resources from Laos, including timber, iron ore, copper, gold, and gemstones.

END excerpts___ Links to external websites added to original text for clarity

Now have a look at the Geopolitical Strategic View of the region from the same expert two years later in a paper published for the US Army War College – Strategic Studies Institute.

The United States and China-ASEAN Relations: All Quiet on the Southeast Asian Front by Dr. Ian Storey, October 2007


While the overall security situation in Southeast Asia is something of a mixed bag with grounds for both optimism and pessimism, one of the most encouraging trends in recent years has been the development of the Association for Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN) re-lations with major external powers. Relations between China and ASEAN in particular have demonstrated a marked improvement over the past decade, thanks to a combination of burgeoning economic ties, perceptions of China as a more constructive and responsible player in regional politics, and Beijing’s “charm offensive” toward Southeast Asia. Overall, the development of ASEAN-China relations poses few security challenges to the United States: Good relations between China and ASEAN enhance regional stability, and a stable Southeast Asia is clearly in America’s interests, especially with Washington focused on events in the Middle East. Although ASEAN-China relations are very positive, this does not necessarily mean the United States is losing influence in Southeast Asia, or that ASEAN members are “bandwagoning” with China. In fact, they are hedging by keeping America engaged and facilitating a continued U.S. military presence. While ASEAN-China relations are relatively benign today, several sources of potential friction could create problems in Sino-U.S. relations: these are Taiwan, Burma, and the South China Sea dispute. This monograph examines each of these scenarios in turn.

Depending on one’s perspective, Southeast Asia in the early 21st century is either a glass half full or a glass half empty. The glass is half full in the sense that for the majority of countries in Southeast Asia, these are relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous times. The economies of the region have either recovered fully, or are well on their way to full recovery, from the disastrous 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis. Singapore and Malaysia have registered strong economic growth, while Vietnam has become the darling of foreign investors, and in 2006 its gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate was second only to the PRC in Asia. Indonesia and the Philippines are experiencing good levels of growth (5-6 percent), while even Laos and Cambodia are achieving respectable levels of GDP growth. At the political level, the region has witnessed smooth leadership transitions in several countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam) and, most importantly, democracy is being consolidated in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest, and arguably most important, country. Indonesia is also witnessing perhaps the world’s most successful peace process in Aceh. At the security level, although territorial disputes continue to simmer, there is no danger that any of these will result in outright conflict. Indeed the chance of interstate conflict between the ASEAN states is almost (but not entirely) unthinkable. Transnational terrorist networks such as Jemaah Islamiyah have been disrupted (but not destroyed); piracy attacks are down thanks partly to the cooperative efforts of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia; and in the Philippines, there are cautious grounds for optimism that a peace deal for Mindanao can be concluded in 2007. At the corporate level, ASEAN has embraced a vision for the future—the ASEAN Community 2015—and efforts are underway to frame a charter for the next ASEAN summit in November 2007 which will give the organization legal underpinnings for the first time ever.

However, these developments do not mean that this observer has adopted a pollyannaish view of Southeast Asia. The glass is half empty in the sense that the region faces a host of serious security challenges, particularly transnational threats such as terrorism; communal and sectarian violence; and illegal trafficking in drugs, small arms, and people. Politically, the September 19, 2006, coup in Thailand, and continued rumors of coups in the Philippines, underscored the fragility of democratic institutions in Southeast Asia. Except for one or two countries, poor governance—corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, political instability, absence of rule of law, and ineffective government—remains widespread across the region. And while Aceh is a success story, the level of violence in Southern Thailand is escalating at an alarming rate. Moreover, some countries in Southeast Asia show characteristics of near-state failure, with Burma being the leading example. And while ASEAN has adopted a clear blueprint for the future, it remains to be seen whether the radical proposals suggested at the ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the Philippines, in January 2007, will survive the negotiations and expected opposition from newer members such as Burma.

One area where optimism is well-founded is ASEAN’s relations with major external powers such as the United States, China, Japan, and India. Relations between ASEAN and these countries have arguably never been better, particularly at the government-to-government level. ASEAN as a group conducts regular meetings and summits with its external partners, and several—including China, Japan, and India—have already acceded to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) which is basically a code of conduct that governs relations among the ASEAN states and external powers. ASEAN remains in the driver’s seat in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and East Asia Summit (EAS) processes. Trade between the ASEAN states and China, Japan, and the United States is booming, and free trade negotiations between the member states and these countries will likely bolster this trend. At the security level, there is unprecedented cooperation between the ASEAN members and extra-regional powers, particularly over transnational security threats.

As both sides are happy to concede, relations between ASEAN and the PRC are at an historic high. Trade and investment ties are booming, and the PRC is widely perceived in Southeast Asia as the Asian growth engine that is largely responsible for helping the ASEAN economies recover from the 1997 economic crisis. The two sides have concluded a raft of agreements, developed a roadmap for future relations, and relegated formerly contentious security issues to the backburner. Overall, the burgeoning relationship between ASEAN and China is, I would aver, good news for the United States. The United States has a vested interest in a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Southeast Asia. It allows the United States to focus on more pressing issues in the Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions) and Northeast Asia. Indeed, the security dynamics in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia are very different. Whereas in Northeast Asia the major security issues stem from bilateral disputes and rivalries (i.e., North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, China and Japan), in Southeast Asia security issues are largely internal in nature (separatism, insurgency, and terrorism). By and large, these are not issues that create severe tensions between Southeast Asian states and external powers, and, on the contrary, they have engendered good cooperation.

There are, in my view, few potential challenges for the United States vis-à-vis improved ASEAN-China relations, at least in the short-to-medium term. Although China’s economic, political, and even military profile has been rising in Southeast Asia for more than a decade, this does not mean that the ASEAN states have lost interest in the United States, or that the PRC is on the cusp of becoming Southeast Asia’s regional hegemon. Southeast Asian countries value the United States as a trade and investment partner and, perhaps more importantly, still view it as Asia’s key off-shore balancer.

End excerpts____

At the end of the day, it’s all about the money. Commerce, trade and political stability will trump ‘human rights’ concerns every time.

Also have a look at the following articles and reports:
Heritage Foundation: Enabling ASEAN’s Economic Vision
China Development Brief: Communist capital flows downstream: China’s aid to Laos

End Part 3: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants

Part 4 coming soon

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Laos: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants - Part 2

‘A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants’ - Part 2
Read Part 1 of this report series here)

I have to admit that despite all of the news this month about the uprising of the Tibetan people against repressive Chinese rule and all of the talk about boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the story out of Asia that I have been following is the plight of the Lao Hmong families trapped in the highland jungles of northern Laos and the thousands of Hmong refugees holdup in makeshift camps and detention centers in Thailand.

I couldn’t help but thinking as I read article after article about this humanitarian crisis that the threads of life and death for these families are in the hands of a few powerful political leaders in the region. Diligence in trying to get to the bottom of this important story has paid off. I think I can shed new light on why the brutal persecution of the Hmong along with other minority ethnic groups in Laos is taking place today with impunity. In addition to the excellent reporting by investigative journalists who have covered the story for Time Magazine, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, and most recently at Aljazeera (see Part 1 of this post series) this is what I have been able to turn up with the help of the Internet.

History of the Conflict between the Pathet Lao and the Hmong

The conflict between the Hmong and the LPRP (
Lao People’s Revolutionary Party) goes back to the rise of the Pathet Lao in Laos (1961-62), a time when the country was struggling to establish a sovereign government after independence from France and the end of the 1st Indochina War. According to the master’s thesis “The Laos State and Hmong Relationship” by Dengnoi Reineke (Brown University, Department of International Studies, 2005):

Laos continues to be politically unstable. Specifically, it is the domestic situation that has been problematic for Laos’ economic, social and political development. City bombings by insurgent groups at local restaurants, tourist hotels and outside markets continue to serve as legitimate travel warnings against visiting the country issued by the US Embassy.

Although there have been reports of possibly various groups that are involved in these activities, the Hmong group has been the group highly suspected by the Lao government. Most reports and sources cite the Hmong insurgent groups as the main terrorists and speak of their arrests. These bomb threats and other forms of Hmong protests throughout the country’s history have largely been sparked by years of social, economic and political oppression. Presently, displaced by opium eradication programs which are heavily supported by the international community, the Hmong have found themselves aimlessly wandering into the cities of Laos.

Their poverty and presence are prominent in make-shift tin shacks illegally scattered all over on government land. Some of these shacks line along the Lao border with the Mekong River and obstruct views to Thailand, where thousands more Hmong expatriates from the Vietnam era and their families wait in exile for asylum abroad. Illiterate and unskilled, Hmong children and families are forced to take up menial, humiliating or dangerous jobs that pay almost nothing for a full twelve to sixteen hour work-day. Most Hmong are forced to adjust to make ends meet in their new environment that is steadily becoming more modernized.
Prior to 1975, the Lao government did not have any policies that specifically dealt with ethnic minority groups living in the country, “apart from directing them to resettle in the lowlands in order to adopt a less migratory mode of production” [Stuart-Fox 1982:208]. The state military was used to assist in this and other similar projects. The first attempt by the Pathet Lao to address Hmong displacement caused by the Vietnam War was in the 1976 Repatriation Act. So, far 1996 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that about 30,000 Hmong refugees have been returned to Laos. In 1976, those who repatriated lived under strict government control, protecting them from outside enemy infiltration, “heavy agricultural taxation, and official control on family livestock” [Stuart-Fox 1982: 209]. During this time the Hmong remained in isolation though and access to medical supplies and education were non-existent under this program.
The resettled Hmong under this new regime were put through political indoctrination re-education programs and labor collectivization or “work cooperatives” were imposed upon them. Most resettled Hmong at the time were given official authority to cultivate opium, an economic sector which the Pathet Lao came to be one of the leading [suppliers] in the world market [Stuart-Fox 1982: 210].
Because of the Hmong’s involvement in the Vietnam War, in which they fought alongside the United States against the Pathet Lao and
Viet Minh soldiers, many Hmong fear for their lives. It has been suspected that the Pathet Lao has systemically persecuted and killed Hmong repatriates. It is also believed that the Pathet Lao, as a “pre-emptive” act, has also killed those Hmong suspected of possible insurgent activities, but these suspicions are not grounded on any evidence.

Many Hmong settled in the United States have been lobbying Congress, since late 1970s, to focus its attention on the Hmong people’s situation in Laos and violations of Hmong human rights. In 2005, one hundred Hmong-Americans living in Wisconsin “lobbied Congress…to draw attention to alleged human rights violations against ethnic Hmong.” The Hmong Americans have urged the United States to grant Hmong refugees asylum for their bravery in the war [Tumulty 2005]. Many Hmong, and many United States government officials, believe that the United States owes them this asylum.

Most of the Hmong refugees have lived in refugee camps since the mid 1970s. Since the year 2000 the Thai government and U.S. agencies have been forced to push the Hmong refugees back into Laos by gunpoint. The Hmong refuse to return, fearful of losing their lives to the Pathet Lao because of their allegiance to the American forces during the Vietnam War. According to medical and military [experts], these fears are not unfounded for these “experts claim that the ruling government of Laos has used Russian-made biochemical weapons against the Hmong…they are being forced to return to a nation that considers them less than human—to a fate of almost certain extermination” [LoBaido, 2000].

END excerpts___
Download the paper at
The Watson Institute of International Studies

A March 2007 press release for a new report by Amnesty International titled “
Hiding in the Jungle: Hmong under Threat” stated the following:

Thousands of men, women and children from the Hmong ethnic minority are living on the run from the military in Laos' mountainous jungle, according to a new report from Amnesty International. The Lao army continues to mount violent attacks on them, even though the jungle-dwellers' military capacity is all but depleted decades after some Hmong fought in the CIA-funded "Secret Army" in Laos during the Viet Nam war.The groups frequently move camp to evade the Lao military, who have attacked them with AK-47s and grenades both inside their camps and outside when they search for food. Large numbers of Hmong, including children, have scars and wounds from bullets and shrapnel. Fighting starvation, the groups spend 12-18 hours a day foraging for roots and husks. Children display the distended bellies and bleached hair of malnutrition. They have no access to healthcare, leaving the people open to diseases and infection from untreated wounds."The Hmong groups living in the jungle are destitute -- the Lao authorities have a responsibility to protect them, not least because of the children involved. Instead, their regular attacks mean the groups live in perpetual danger of their lives," said Natalie Hill, Deputy Asia Pacific Director at Amnesty International.
Despite numerous reports of killings and attacks by Lao security forces, Amnesty International is aware of only two cases that have been 'investigated' by the authorities -- and in both instances the authorities concluded the information about the attacks was fabricated and issued blanket denials. In one of the incidents, in April 2006, 17 children were among the 26 people who had been killed while foraging for food. Survivors said around 15-20 soldiers from the Lao People's Army had ambushed them with rocket-propelled grenades.One young woman named "Pakou" described how her family was captured in the jungle when she was 18. She was taken alone to a police post where she was locked in a room for a year with two other Hmong women. They were repeatedly gang-raped by the police and made to do housework. After a year "Pakou" managed to escape, traumatised, across the border to Thailand.
The Lao authorities refuse to allow human rights organisations unfettered access to areas of concern and only limited information is available about the fate of those Hmong who are deported back from Thailand or who choose to come down from the jungles to try to integrate into Lao society.In December 2006, 420 people emerged from the jungle in the north-eastern province of Xieng Khouang, apparently seeking to join mainstream society. Some 370 people had similarly left the jungle near the northern tourist town of Vang Vieng two months earlier. Nothing has been heard from either group since and Amnesty International is concerned for their safety."The Lao authorities must help any Hmong who want to move out of the jungle to reintegrate with mainstream society -- and they must allow UN bodies to monitor this process," said Natalie Hill.

END excerpts___

Read the full report Hiding in the Jungle: Hmong under Threat at the Amnesty International website.

Shifting Alliances Amid Economic Opportunity in Southeast Asia

Laos is a country that is “opening up to the world” after decades of rule by a secretive, repressive communist regime. Report after report tell of the progress made by the Lao government in recent years on economic reforms, attracting foreign investment and development aid, allowing more private ownership of small business, eradication of the opium trade, and increasing exports to the country’s neighbors Vietnam, Thailand, and China.

Tourism alone in Laos over the past 10 years has been increasing by as much as 30% per annum (1990 = 14,000 tourists, 2005 = 1.1 million tourists) bringing in much needed foreign currency revenue from US, European, and Asian visitors. Do an online search for “
Laos” in any of the major search engines and you will come up with a zillion links to tourism and travel sites.

As reported by the International Rivers foundation, Laos has more than 70 planned hydropower dam projects, ten of which have been completed or are in various stages of construction. These hydroelectric projects are being financed by governments, private investors, and international banks. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and companies and investors from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, France, Norway, and Belgium are all in on the lucrative hydropower boom in Laos. This harnessing of the Laos’ abundant river power is helping the country to become a net exporter of electric power to its ASEAN neighbors such as Thailand. But that’s not all. Road infrastructure projects, timber, and mining are also in a boom stage in the Lao PDR.

Laos on Monday inaugurated the opening of an important
new 2-lane paved highway partially financed by the Chinese government. This new road which was once part of the old opium smuggling route is an important trade and travel link in the 1800 Km long “north-south economic corridor” linking Kunming, China to Bangkok, Thailand. Thomas Fuller writing for the International Herald Tribune describes the new highway in his report of March 30th:

A highway that binds China and its neighbors

Luang Namtha, Laos: The newly refurbished Route 3 that cuts through this remote town is an ordinary strip of pavement, the type of two-lane road you might find winding through the backwoods of Vermont or sunflower fields in the French provinces.

On Leusa, 70, who lives near the road, calls it "deluxe." As a young woman, she traded opium and tiger bones along the road, which was then nothing more than a horse trail.

On Monday, the prime ministers of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam will officially inaugurate the former opium smuggling route as the final link of what they call the "north-south economic corridor," a network of roads linking the southern Chinese city of Kunming to Bangkok spanning 1,800 kilometers, or 1,100 miles.

The network, several sections of which were still unpaved as late as December, is a major milestone for China and its southern neighbors. The low-lying mountains here, the foothills of the Himalayas, served for centuries as a natural defensive boundary between Southeast Asian civilizations and the giant empire to the north. The road rarely follows a straight line as it meanders through terraced rice fields and tea plantations.

Today, those same Southeast Asian civilizations alternatively crave closer integration with that empire and fear its sway as an emerging economic giant. China, in turn, covets the land, markets and natural resources of one of Asia's least developed and most pristine regions.

END excerpts___

These are all good signs for the people of Laos. Who in their right mind would complain about economic and infrastructure improvements in this dirt poor country? Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was recently in the Lao capital Vientiane along with the PM’s of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma) attending the 3rd GMS Summit (Greater Mekong Sub-region). The Greater Mekong sub-region is a huge underdeveloped market made up of the six countries that share the Mekong River, a consumer market representing roughly 320 million people.

So there you have it. The Mekong River countries are in a period of potentially strong economic growth after decades of stagnation and political turmoil and war. The landlocked country of Laos (the Lao PDR) sits right at the center of the region’s surface transportation improvement program. In addition, Laos is abundant in natural resources such as timber, minerals, and a thousand rivers that can be harnessed for hydroelectric power generation. The country’s population is low (approx. 6.2 million people) in comparison to its size (roughly the size of the UK), and the Lao regime can pretty well do as it damn pleases without any pressure from its citizens, its ASEAN neighbors, or the international community. This is an (almost) perfect setup for maximum exploitation of life and limb if you ask me. The Hmong crisis is as about as worrisome as a tick on water buffalo’s rear-end for the regime in Vientiane. Or is it?

END Part 2____

Part 3 of “Laos: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants” coming soon

Related articles and additional resources

Xinhaua News - Chinaview (People’s Republic of China)
3rd GMS Summit at Vientiane, Laos – March 30-31, 2008
Fact Sheet: Asian Development Bank and the Lao PDR
GMS Flagship Programs: North-South Economic Corridor (ADB)
Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) (official website of the People’s Republic of China)
Report on China’s Cooperation in the Greater Mekong Subregion Cooperation

U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos
Ambassador’s press release on Normal Trade Relations, 12/15/04

Radio Free Asia (RFA)
U.S. Normalizes Trade Relations with Laos Amid Controversy, 12/10/04

Amnesty International – Asia Pacific - Laos
Laos: Destitute jungle dwellers living on the run from military, 03/23/07
AI Full Report:
Hiding in the Jungle: Hmong under Threat, 03/27/08
Laos: Military atrocities against Hmong children are war crimes, 09/13/04

Doctors without Borders (MSF)
Fearing a Forced Return: Lao Hmong refugees in Northern Thailand, 10/01/07
MSF Field News: Laos

International Herald Tribune
A highway that binds China and its neighbors by Thomas Fuller, 03/30/08
Video report: Coming around the mountain by Thomas Fuller, 03/30/08
A desperate life for survivors of the Secret War in Laos by Thomas Fuller, 12/17/07
Note: see interviews with Hmong war veteran Xang Yang and video and photo essays

New Mandala blog – new perspectives on mainland Southeast Asia

Elephants, forests, and power – 03/20/08
The Lao resettlement controversy, 12/03/07
Internal resettlement in Laos – a response, 12/14/07
More on the Chinese in northern Laos, 10/07/07
The Nam Tha dam project in Laos, 09/30/07
Vang Pao aftermath on the upper Mekong, 09/28/07
Stranger than fiction? (arrest in U.S. of Hmong leader General Vang Pao) – 06/05/07
New Mandala Tags: Focus on Laos

Imaging Our Mekong - Mekong Currents – a monthly column about the people living in the Greater Mekong Subregion
Creating a Mekong Community by Rosalia Sciortino - Jan 2005 issue

International Rivers – protecting rivers and the people who depend upon them
Laos hydroelectric dam projects

BBC News
Vietnam ‘hub for illegal timber’, 03/19/08
(Environmental groups report on growing illegal timber trade with Laos)
Borderlines report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)

Heritage Foundation (a conservative U.S. think tank)
Enabling ASEAN’s Economic Vision, 01/29/08
2008 Index of Economic Freedom: Laos
Advancing Freedom in Burma, 01/15/08
China and ASEAN: Endangered American Primacy in Southeast Asia, 10/19/05

The Boston Globe
Guerillas in Our Midst, 06/10/07
(article about the arrest of the famed Hmong General Vang Pao)

Laos Cultural Profile website - Introduction to Laos
(A portal providing detailed information about Laos. Created with support from the Rockefeller Foundation)

History of Laos since 1945

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