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Japan, Thailand, Vietnam Vie with China for Influence in Impoverished, Landlocked Laos

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Laos is getting a new round of aid and investment offers this year as foreign governments hope to dilute China’s increasing influence over the poor, landlocked country, observers in the region say.

Japan, Thailand and Vietnam have moved this year to offer new help or reaffirm the benefits of previous aid to Laos. Their assistance would arrive as a 400-kilometer, $5.9 billion China-invested railway is set for completion this year – the pinnacle of Chinese largesse for Laos.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga spoke this month with Lao counterpart Phankham Viphavanh to affirm plans for advancing a strategic partnership, Japanese media outlets say. Japan has offered about $1.8 million to open COVID-19 vaccine storage facilities and pledged support for upgrading international airports, the reports say.

In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha has spoken by phone to the new Lao leader, who took office in March, the official Lao News Agency reported this month. On those calls, Phankham thanked Thailand for providing scholarships in education, agriculture and health. Thailand has aided Laos further in fighting COVID-19, the news agency reported.

Vietnamese officials have launched a 2021-2030 cooperation strategy and a five-year cooperation agreement, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s news website, Nhan Dan, said. Leaders from both sides are due to decide later what the two deals will cover. Vietnam gave COVID-19 aid and 1,000 scholarships to Laos last year as well.

Chinese official flows of money into Laos have reached $11 billion per year, according to the Aiddata.org website operated by U.S. university William & Mary. Financing and investment would push the figure higher.

Other top donors are Japan and Thailand, with Vietnam emerging as a new one. Japan gave $63.8 billion in 2016, including grants, loans and technical aid, according to Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Official development aid from all countries sometimes reaches 15% of Lao GDP. The economy has grown at an annual average of 5.8% during the past five years because of the “support of development partners and friendly countries,” the national news agency said. The support matters because about a quarter of the 7 million Laotians live in poverty.

Map of the Mekong River going through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam
Mekong River

Much of Asia hopes to lessen China’s influence so the superpower does not wield too much clout over the Mekong River, which flows from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, or over the region’s overland transport links, analysts say. Chinese dams control flows in the upper Mekong. The U.S. government raised its aid offer to Laos and its neighbors last year.

“Laos is kind of effectively being carved up in different directions but increasingly dominated by China,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “What we’re seeing is [that] the major powers’ rivalry is dominating the region. Laos is just one pawn in this mix.”

Japan wants more “connectivity” in continental Southeast Asia, said Jeffrey Kingston, a history instructor at the Japan campus of Temple University. Chinese control of water flows into the Mekong further worries Japanese officials, he said.

“I just think that Japan is signaling that, [in] places that it looks like have been conceded to China’s influence, it is going to contest,” he said. “It is going to take an assertive posture toward these countries.”

Japan relies on Thailand for automotive production, while Japanese manufacturers are increasingly active in Vietnam – the result of investments made there since the 1980s. Land shipments can lower the cost of sending goods to more remote seaports.

Japan, alongside the United States. is pushing back against China, Thitinan said. Washington’s Mekong-U.S. Partnership, an aid plan launched in September, is seen as a counterweight to China in continental Southeast Asia, including Laos.

A local villager drive a boat where the future site of the Luang Prabang dam will be on the Mekong River, outskirt of Luang…
FILE – A local villager steers a boat where the future site of the Luang Prabang dam will be on the Mekong River, outskirt of Luang Prabang province, Laos, Feb. 5, 2020.

Japan spars separately with China over sovereignty in waters near its outlying islands, and leftover World War II issues.

Thailand typically finances Lao dams for hydropower and maintains close cultural ties with the bordering country, Thitinan said. Vietnam resents Beijing over its expansion in the disputed South China Sea and previous land border disputes, including a war in the 1970s.

“There’s that little battle for influence between Vietnam and China and Vietnam has been slowly losing influence to China,” said Jack Nguyen, a partner at the business advisory firm Mazars in Ho Chi Minh City.

China does not disclose aid and investment totals for Laos, but analysts say it depends more on China than on any other country. Now Laos, with a gross domestic product of less than $19 billion and an economy ravaged by COVID-19, is struggling to pay for the railway line.

Laos owed $250 million on railway last year, the International Monetary Fund has said.

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Myanmar’s Deposed Leader Aung San Suu Kyi Makes New Court Appearance

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Myanmar’s deposed de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi made another court appearance Monday as the country’s regional neighbors increase pressure on the military junta to bring an end to the deadly chaos.

Lawyers for the 75-year-old Suu Kyi also appeared via video conference in a courtroom in the capital Naypyitaw for a procedural hearing.

Suu Kyi has been detained since the February 1 coup and is facing six criminal charges, the most serious of them a charge of breaking the country’s colonial-era secrets law that could put her in prison for 14 years if convicted.

Her lawyers say on Monday she again demanded a face-to-face meeting with her legal team, which has not occurred during her detention.

Two other leaders from the overthrown civilian government, President U Win Myint and Dr. Myo Aung, Naypitaw Council Chairman, also appeared before the court via video conference. The next hearing for all three will be held on May 10.

The military cited widespread fraud in last November’s general election — which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide — as its reason for overthrowing Suu Kyi’s government.

The coup has sparked daily mass demonstrations across Myanmar demanding the return of Suu Kyi and her elected government to power.

The junta has responded with an increasingly violent and deadly crackdown against the protesters. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nongovernmental monitoring organization, estimates that more than 700 people have been killed since the coup.

Leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc, of which Myanmar is a member, held an emergency summit Saturday in Jakarta with Senior General Min Aung Hliang, the junta’s leader. The group issued a rare statement demanding the junta end the violence, begin a dialogue with all relevant parties and allow entry of a special ASEAN envoy.

But it stopped short of a demand for the immediate release of all political prisoners.

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Editorial: Myanmar People’s Disdain for ASEAN Borne Out by Pathetic ‘Consensus’

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In Jakarta, the bloc didn’t simply fail to condemn the junta and back the people—it bought the generals more time to move ahead with their corrupt and repressive agenda.Irrawaddy

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Myanmar Shadow Government Welcomes ASEAN Call to End Violence

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Myanmar’s shadow government of ousted lawmakers has welcomed a call by Southeast Asian leaders for an end to “military violence” after their crisis talks in Jakarta with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.

The general attended a high-level summit Saturday with leaders from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to discuss Myanmar’s mounting crisis.

Since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a Feb. 1 coup, Myanmar has been in an uproar with near-daily protests and a nationwide civil disobedience movement.

Security forces have deployed live ammunition to quell the uprising, killing more than 740 people in brutal crackdowns, according to local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

The ASEAN meeting produced a consensus that there would be “an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar,” the bloc said Saturday.

It added that ASEAN will also have a special envoy to “facilitate mediation” between all parties, and this representative will be able to travel to Myanmar.

But while they “heard calls for the release of all political prisoners,” a commitment to free them was not included in the consensus statement.

A spokesperson from the shadow government — known as the National Unity Government (NUG) — on Saturday said ASEAN’s statement was “encouraging news.”

“We look forward to firm action by ASEAN to follow up its decisions and restore our democracy and freedom for our people and for the region,” said Dr Sasa, the NUG’s minister of international cooperation, who is currently in hiding with the rest of his fellow lawmakers.

The lawmakers — most of whom were part of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party — are wanted for high treason by the junta.

Overnight, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc will continue to call for the release of political prisoners.

‘Business as usual’

As Myanmar nears three months under the military regime, escalating violence by its security forces — especially in urban centers — has pushed protesters and prominent activists into hiding.

The junta has also throttled communications across the country, imposing a nightly internet shutdown for 70 consecutive days and restricting mobile data to a mere trickle.

By Saturday, the number of detainees climbed to 3,389, according to AAPP.

Independent news outlet The Irrawaddy confirmed Sunday that a former editor, Thu Thu Tha, was arrested in Thanlyin, a port city across the river from commercial hub Yangon.

“In spite of Min Aung Hlaing’s appearance in the ASEAN summit, it’s business as usual,” Irrawaddy’s founder Aung Zaw told AFP, adding that most of his staff are currently in hiding.

On Saturday, as the junta chief attended the meeting with ASEAN leaders and foreign ministers in Jakarta, soldiers and police fired on protesters near Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw.

One 50-year-old protester was held by the police and shot dead by a soldier; an eyewitness told AFP.

Despite the threat of violence, protesters across Myanmar continued to take to the streets Sunday — from the northern jade mining city of Hpakant to eastern Karenni state.

In central Myingyan — where brutal crackdowns have forced residents to hide in nearby villages — protesters smeared red paint on some of the city’s buildings to protest the bloodshed.

“Give power back to the people,” read graffiti on the city’s sidewalks.

‘Will the killing stop?’

State-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar on Sunday reported on Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Jakarta and said he discussed the country’s “political changes.”

But it made no mention of ASEAN’s consensus for a halt to violence.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said it remains to be seen how effective the bloc’s engagement will be.

“The result of the ASEAN Summit will be found in Myanmar, not [in] a document,” Andrews tweeted Sunday.

“Will the killing stop? Will the terrorizing of neighborhoods end? Will the thousands abducted be released?”

The junta has justified its power seizure as a means to protect democracy, alleging electoral fraud in November elections which Suu Kyi’s party had won in a landslide.

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