Gates: US ‘Putting Money Where Mouth Is’ in Asia

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has promised Washington's allies in Asia that America will honor its commitments in the region, regardless of domestic and international pressures. Gates made his remarks Saturday at one of Asia's most prominent security conferences, taking place in Singapore. Gates says America's commitment to Asia will extend beyond, what he called, merely “putting boots on the ground.” He told delegates from 27 countries at the Asia Security Summit Saturday that in the coming years, the U.S. military plans to increase its port calls, naval engagements and multilateral training with countries throughout the region. Gates said, “America is, as the expression goes, putting 'our money where our mouth is' with respect to this part of the world - and will continue to do so.” However, he acknowledged that he knew many in the audience were concerned that this money would be in short supply. U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered Gates to work on cutting billions of dollars from defense spending. Gates says the focus has been first on canceling troubled or unneeded weapons programs and culling excess overhead. He insists that U.S. military modernization will continue. The secretary laid out in his speech Saturday how the U.S. Navy and Air Force have created a joint program to combat what he called “one of the principal security challenges” emerging - the use of new technologies and weapons to deny U.S. forces access to key sea routes and lines of communication. Senior U.S. defense officials insist that Gates' comments were not entirely aimed at China, the region's growing military powerhouse. However, Gates has said Washington remains concerned about China’s military research projects, which include anti-ship missiles and stealth fighter aircraft. On Friday, Gates held a nearly one-hour-long bilateral discussion with his Chinese counterpart, General Liang Guanglie. U.S. officials described the talks as “cordial” and focusing on mutual goals while acknowledging disagreements. The Chinese defense minister is Beijing's highest official ever to participate in the conference. Adam Ward is the director of studies for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. His group sponsors the Shangri-La Dialogue. Speaking to VOA, he says Washington is in the delicate position of figuring out how to leverage its demands in what is now a multipolar region. Ward said, “It's about weaving Asia into a global picture, in recognizing the new players who are coming on the scene and to see to what extent benign relationships, cooperative relationships can be built even with countries like China where the relationship is infected with a certain amount of reciprocal suspicion.” But Gates cautions people should not discount the United States just yet, even in the face of a shifting international landscape and growing domestic pressures. The defense secretary said, “I have seen firsthand the staying power and adaptability of America over the course of my life. Indeed, history’s dustbin is littered with dictators and aggressors who underestimated America’s resilience, will and underlying strength.” This is Gates' fifth and final Asia Security Summit as U.S. defense secretary before he steps down on June 30. Next week, he heads to Brussels for the NATO defense meeting, where participants are expected to discuss the alliance's actions in Libya and Afghanistan.

Democrat Leader Pledges to Raise Public Income

The Democrat leader pledges to increase people's income if his party returns to power after the July 3 election. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, deputy leader Korn Chatikavanij and director of the party's Election Coordinating Center, Apirak Kosayodhin, introduced the party's economic policies during a seminar titled Moving Thailand Forward at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center. Abhisit said the country's economy got stuck in the doldrums and all economic indicators were in the negative when he took office, so his government decided to pump more cash into the system through the handout of the 2,000-baht check to workers whose monthly salary was less than 15,000 baht.

Vietnamese Land Activists Jailed For Up to 8 Years

Seven land rights activists in Vietnam have been sentenced to terms of up to eight years after being convicted of subversion at a closed one-day trial. The heaviest sentence was handed Monday to activist Tran Thi Thuy, who was identified as a member of the banned opposition group Viet Tan . Sentences ranged between two and seven years for the others, including pastor Duong Kim Khai and two other members of an unsanctioned Mennonite group known as the Cattle Shed Congregation. U.S. Embassy spokesman Beau Miller told the Associated Press on Tuesday that Washington has expressed its concern about the trial to Vietnamese authorities. Miller said the United States is particularly troubled that some of the defendants were denied access to lawyers before the trial in southern Ben Tre province. The U.S.-based Viet Tan, or Vietnam Reform Party, acknowledged on its website that three of the seven are members of the party. The party says Khai and the others had been offering legal advice to farmers whose land has been seized by the government to make way for developments. A Vietnamese news report said some of the defendants had traveled to Thailand and Cambodia for training on how to overthrow the government by non-violent means. The Viet Tan said some of the defendants had exercised their right to attend courses on non-violent struggle. Last week, five members of the U.S. Congress led by Representative Ed Royce of California wrote to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung seeking the release of the seven. The letter called the trial a "stain" on Vietnam's "increasingly troublesome religious freedom record." Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.

American Faces More Than 15-Year Sentence in Thailand for Insulting Monarchy

Thai police have arrested U.S. citizen Lerpong Wichaikhammat, 54, and charged him with defaming the revered monarchy for an alleged offense dating to a four-year-old post on his blog. Insulting the monarchy, known as "Lese Majeste", is a serious crime in Thailand that is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Rights groups and academics have criticized the controversial law and say Thai authorities abuse it for political purposes. The alleged offense appears to have occurred years ago, when he was living in the U.S. state of Colorado, where he spent 30 years. Thai police say Lerpong, who also goes by the name Joe Gordon in the United States, provided a link on his blog in 2007 to the book “The King Never Smiles." The unauthorized biography of 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is deemed critical of the Thai royal family and is banned in Thailand. Gordon was arrested on Tuesday in northeastern Nakhon Ratchasimaand province where he has been living for the past year. In addition to the Lese Majeste charge, he is accused of violating Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act for committing Lese Majeste online. It is not clear why authorities decided to arrest Gordon now, but rights activists say there has been increasing use of the law to silence critical voices and political opponents. Benjamin Zawacki, Asia researcher for Amnesty International, spoke about the controversial law this week at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. “Although the Lese Majeste law has been on the books for decades, during Thailand’s ongoing political crisis, which began in late 2005, it has been used more vigorously amidst a worsening climate for political expression,” said Zawacki. A spokesman at the United States Embassy in Bangkok says a consular official visited Gordon on Friday and that they are following his case closely. Zawacki says the law, as currently drafted, means Thailand is violating its international legal obligations to protect freedom of speech and that it should be changed. Thai authorities say the strict law is necessary to protect the revered monarchy from slanderous attack and to ensure national security. Zawacki says it is clearly a legal and factual stretch to claim that an insulting remark could compromise the security of the nation. Rights groups and academics have decried authorities’ increasing use of the law to silence critics and opposition politicians. A Thai historian and an editor of opposition Red Shirt news magazines were recently charged with Lese Majeste. Thai authorities have also charged 18 leaders of the Red Shirts movement. Gordon would not be the first to be charged with Lese Majeste for posting someone else’s writing. The editor of the online magazine Prachatai , Chiranuch Premchaiporn, was charged last year on several counts of Lese Majeste for bloggers’ postings on her website. Authorities say that although she did not post them herself, she did not remove the offending messages quickly enough and could be sentenced to several decades in prison.

Orphanage Engulfed by Malaysian Landslide, 5 Dead

Police, firefighters and villagers are desperately digging through the mud and muck after a deadly landslide tore down a hillside outside the Malaysian capital, burying 20 orphans. Officials in Hulu Langat, just south of Kuala Lumpur, said heavy rains triggered the landslide, which engulfed part of the orphanage and also trapped four adults. They said five bodies had been pulled from the mud but that at least another six boys had survived and were pulled out alive.   Officials said at least 100 people are continuing to search for the rest of the orphans and staff members, who are still buried. One lawmaker said the landslide happened very quickly, giving the children little time to escape. Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

US Sending Senior Diplomat to Meet New Burmese Government

The United States is sending a senior diplomat for “introductory” talks with leaders of Burma’s new, nominally-civilian, government. The new government was seated in late March to replace a military junta but U.S. officials say the military retains effective control. Officials here say the dispatch of the diplomat to Burma does not reflect any easing of the critical U.S. view of the political changes there, but that the Obama administration remains committed to trying dialogue with Burma. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Joseph Yun is due to leave Washington Wednesday for a visit to Burma spanning three days. The senior diplomat last visited Burma in December and so his visit his week will be the first since the new government was sworn in on March 30th. The military junta that ruled Burma for decades ceded power at that time, following a national election in November that was widely criticized as a sham. A quarter of the seats in the new parliament were set aside for military officers and more than half of the remaining seats were won by a pro-military party. Announcing the Yun visit, State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said the United States still considers the political process in Burma badly flawed and does not approach this week’s talks with any illusions. “It’s consistent with our two-track approach to Burma. There’s nothing [unduly optimistic] about this. We recognize that there’s some fairly serious challenges to address in this relationship. But we’re going to continue to pursue a dual-track policy that involves pressure, but also principled engagement," he said. A senior official who spoke to reporters said that in addition to meeting government officials and civil society members, Yun will try to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed last November after spending most of the previous 20 years in detention. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party won Burmese elections in 1990 but was barred by the military from taking power. The November elections were largely boycotted by the opposition. In a notice to Congress Monday, President Barack Obama renewed U.S. economic sanctions against Burma, including a near-total trade ban, that would have otherwise expired this month. The routine extension notice said Burma is still engaged in actions hostile to U.S. interests including the large-scale repression of the democratic opposition. The State Department also Monday dismissed a limited clemency program announced by Burmese President Thein Sein that would among other things cut sentences for all Burmese prisoners by a year. It said Burma should immediately free all of the country’s estimated 2,200 political prisoners.

Thai Authorities Arrest Man in Apparent Animal Smuggling Case

A man was arrested at Thailand's international airport Friday after he was caught trying to smuggle wild animals out of the country. The man, identified as a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, was trying to board a flight to Dubai when investigators found a baby bear, two leopards, two panthers and at least two monkeys stuffed in his luggage. The anti-trafficking group FREELAND, whose members were present during the arrest, says the man is believed to be part of a far-reaching animal trafficking network. Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

Laos Plans New Study on Dam Effects

Laos says it will conduct new research on the environmental effects of a hydropower dam it wants to build on the lower Mekong River, bowing to requests from neighboring nations for more study on the project. Daovong Phonekeo, the deputy director general of the country's Department of Electricity, said Tuesday the country will hire advisers to do the study, and will ask a Thai construction company that is playing a leading role in the project to fund the study. He says construction work on the project will be delayed for the study. The Xayaburi dam will be the first hydropower dam on the lower reaches of the river, although China has built dams on the upper stretches of the river. Last month, at the Mekong River Commission, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, which the Mekong also flows through, asked for more information on the dam's possible effects on wildlife, fish stocks and farming along the river. Vietnam has asked that all planned hydropower dams on the river be delayed for 10 years for further study. The commission, which aims to build a regional consensus for sustainable development of the river, does not have the power to block any dam projects. Laos plans to build a series of dams on the river to generate electricity, which it can sell to other countries. Thailand earlier had agreed to buy 95 percent of the power from the project. About 60 million people depend on the Mekong directly or indirectly for their livelihoods. Environmental groups, including the WWF , have expressed concern that dams on the Mekong could endanger rare fish and wildlife, and could damage farms along the 4,800-kilometer river. The WWF on Tuesday urged that international best practices be used in any studies to evaluate the dam's effects.

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