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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Challenges ahead for visions of an ASEAN community

By Ian Timberlake (AFP)

HANOI — Street vendor Ta Thi Huong has never heard of the "ASEAN Community" which Southeast Asian leaders spent two days last week trying to refine.

"ASEAN? I don't know what it is," says Huong, 40, who wears a traditional conical bamboo hat as she sells apricots on the streets of the Vietnamese capital Hanoi. "What community?"

Making the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meaningful for the region's 590 million citizens is one of the bloc's challenges but observers say the vision faces even more fundamental issues.

Analysts say it is weighed down by wide development gaps within the region, entrenched domestic interests and the perennial distraction of Myanmar's failure to embrace democracy.

Focused on economic issues for most of its existence, ASEAN's 10 members in 2008 adopted a charter committing them to tighter links.

The group aims to form by 2015 a "community" based on free trade, common democratic ideals, and shared social goals including a common identity.

Senior government officials admit that progress has been greatest in the economic sphere, while the political and social "pillars" of their community need strengthening.

"It's easy to have a harmonisation of interests on the economic sphere," said Christopher Roberts, an expert in Asian politics and security at the University of Canberra.

But he said that creating a cohesive community was a task better carried out over decades and that the 2015 goal was unrealistic.

Political, security and human rights issues are "the real point of contention" between the very diverse group of countries, Roberts said.

ASEAN's membership ranges from communist Vietnam and Laos -- one of Asia's poorest nations -- to the Westernised city-state of Singapore, the absolute monarchy of Brunei and the vibrant democracy of Indonesia.

Other members are Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia and military-ruled Myanmar.
An ASEAN summit in Vietnam's capital Hanoi which ended Friday was again overshadowed by Myanmar, and by protests in Bangkok which prevented Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from attending.

Thailand's long-running political drama is among the domestic issues within ASEAN nations which are distracting it from moving forward collectively, analysts say.

The group has been divided over how to respond to Myanmar, which is under United States and European Union sanctions.

But on Friday it urged Myanmar to ensure that this year's planned elections, which have been boycotted by the opposition, are fair and include all parties.

"You talk of a community, it means that there must be some degree of commonality within the region but as you know ASEAN is made up of countries of varying nature," said Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

"Economically less so, but certainly in the political area, we have different political systems working in our neighbourhood."

He said that should not be a problem as long as everyone is committed to the same universal principles including human rights and democracy.

At their summit, foreign ministers fleshed out their vision of a rules-based regional community by signing a protocol to help member nations resolve conflicts.

Scarred by wars in the 1960s and 1970s, Southeast Asian nations have largely lived peacefully together for at least two decades, but smaller-scale conflicts and sovereignty disputes persist.

Cambodia and Thailand have been locked in nationalist tensions and a troop standoff over a disputed temple on their border since July 2008. Soldiers have died on both sides.

Although ASEAN has helped the region avoid war and has allowed its members to get to know each other better, it "has not been really effective" on bilateral issues like the Thai-Cambodia dispute, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"It it comes down to national interest, some members, they are not willing to rely on ASEAN... so at the end of the day the term 'community' is rather superficial," he said.

Ahead of the summit, ASEAN took another step towards building the social aspect of its community with the inauguration of a commission to address the rights of women and children.

Natalegawa, who says the ASEAN Community cannot be fairly compared with the much longer-established European Union, said one of group's challenges is how to make a difference in ordinary people's lives.

If it can do that, Huong, the Hanoi apricot seller, will take notice.

"I will like it if it makes our country better," she said, laughing.
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Thailand clashes leave 18 dead

By Patrick Winn and Mark Magnier

Anti-government protesters clash with troops in Bangkok, the capital. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva vows to restore peace and order.

"Red Shirt" protesters clash with soldiers in central Bangkok. Protest leader Nattawut Saikua said the deaths were the fault of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for his refusal to step down and call new elections. (Rungroj Yongrit / EPA / April 10, 2010)

Reporting from Bangkok, Thailand, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- Anti-government demonstrators and Thai troops battled in the streets of Bangkok on Saturday in a conflagration of grenades, gasoline bombs and rubber bullets, leaving 18 people dead and more than 650 wounded.

Five soldiers and 13 civilians, including a Japanese journalist, were killed, the Associated Press reported.

As protests that have dragged on for a month sharply escalated, hundreds of the demonstrators also forced their way into government offices in two northern cities, raising the stakes for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his military-backed government.

"The situation at the moment is so confused," said Pranee Thiparat, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "Anarchy rules Bangkok!"

In a televised address, Abhisit vowed to restore calm.

"The government and I are still responsible for easing the situation and trying to bring peace and order to the country," he said.

The "Red Shirt" protesters, mostly drawn from rural and working-class communities, are demanding that Abhisit dissolve parliament, step down and hold a general election.

The demonstrators, many of whom support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, want an end to what they see as entrenched rule by the rich and powerful. Thaksin, a billionaire, was ousted in a 2006 coup, charged by military officials with corruption and abuse.

As the riots spread Saturday night toward an area popular with backpackers, the army pulled back to Bangkok's old quarter and called for a truce.

"If this continues, if the army responds to the Red Shirts, violence will expand," army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said.

But protesters raised the ante, calling on Abhisit to leave the country immediately. They also displayed a protester's corpse draped in a Thai flag, and held up pictures of several others, prompting cries of anger and weeping from the crowd.

Several soldiers who had been relieved of their weapons were marched onto a stage Saturday night. Protest leader Nattawut Saikua urged followers to detain more soldiers but to avoid hurting them, even as he blamed Abhisit for the deaths.

"This has resulted from the prime minister's refusal to step down," Nattawut said, referring to the dead protester. "This is Thai society's most serious loss."

Demonstrators believe that Abhisit, who came to power in a 2008 parlia- mentary vote, lacks a popular mandate.

With their demands unmet and the prime minister ostensibly willing to consider an election in a few months, the Red Shirts had risked seeing momentum dwindle among their hard-core supporters, said Don Pathan, a columnist for the Nation newspaper.

"It's definitely an escalation," he said.

Before Saturday's riots, police and soldiers, many from working-class backgrounds similar to the protesters', hadn't used deadly force.

A number of police officers expressed sympathy, some by hugging protesters, shaking hands and even waving Red Shirt paraphernalia.

Some analysts, meanwhile, said the unrest could prompt the military to step in, as it has several times before.

"There might be a coup," Chulalongkorn University's Thiparat said. "There's a real split both in the military and police forces, a serious one. That partly explains why the Abhisit government hasn't really been able to enforce law and order during the past three weeks."


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Cambodia asks to convene ASEAN summit to help defuse Thai's extremely tense situation

PHNOM PENH, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on Saturday night proposed to hold an urgent ASEAN summit to help defusing Thailand's extremely tense situation.

In his letter to Pham Gia Khiem, Vietnamese deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Hor Namhong said "in light of this very grave development which no one knows when it will end and whether it will lead to more bloodshed, I think that we, as fellow ASEAN member states cannot stand idle and leave ASEAN image at stake any further."

Hor said he refered to the current "extremely tense political situation in Thailand, which has already claimed many human casualties."

"Therefore, I would like to propose that Vietnam as Chair of ASEAN should issue a Declaration on the situation in Thailand, or convene an urgent special ASEAN Summit in order to help looking for any appropriate ways to defuse such an extremely explosive situation in our friendly Thailand," he said.

ASEAN comprises of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
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'I will fight,' says girl, but denies report

The "Cambodian female" was accused of instigating the S. Phila. High assault.
By Jeff Gammage and Kristen A. Graham

Inquirer Staff Writers

For six weeks, since the release of the official Philadelphia School District report on the Dec. 3 violence, she has been the mystery girl of South Philadelphia High:

The rogue student identified only as "the Cambodian female," singled out as an instigator and assailant who joined predominantly African American youths in a series of assaults on Asians.

At 1:30 p.m. that day, the report said, two to four African American girls accompanied by a "possibly Cambodian" female attacked an Asian girl, then dragged her downstairs by her hair.

In a massive after-school assault on Broad Street two hours later, the Cambodian girl was "the first to attack" and "the most violent," identified by the principal as kicking a Vietnamese girl, the report said.

Who is she? Few know.

School District security chief James Golden said he didn't know who she was. Philadelphia police investigators said they didn't know her. The local Cambodian association has been unable to contact her.

After weeks of searching, however, The Inquirer has identified and interviewed the girl, who is 15. She denied any role in the violence of Dec. 3.

"I didn't do nothing wrong," she insisted. "Why, of all the people that's involved, they pick me out?"

She acknowledged being in a brawl the previous day. And she said no one should doubt her toughness when provoked. "I will fight."

The newspaper is withholding her name because of her age.

The district report, issued Feb. 23, cited the girl 10 times in its findings and twice in footnotes.

Cambodian leaders and Asian advocates question why a lone Cambodian girl is cited again and again among so large a group of assailants - at least 10 to 20 inside the school and 20 to 40 outside, according to the report.

They say it's a district attempt to portray the events of Dec. 3 not as "anti-Asian violence" specific to South Philadelphia High, but as general violence that could have happened anywhere.

"We won't make excuses for her, but I want to know how she's tied to the whole thing," said Rorng Sorn, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia. "Why is this Cambodian female student being highlighted multiple times?"

Sorn questioned whether the girl had been mentioned so "she can be the scapegoat, and it can be, 'OK, the attackers also had Asians. Maybe it's not racially motivated.' "

Cecilia Chen, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, agreed.

"The district has made a very strong effort to portray the attacks as multiracial, and the fact that they focus so heavily on a single Cambodian female really speaks to that," she said. "It was only Asian immigrant students who were attacked on Dec. 3."

District officials vigorously denied there was any attempt to use the Cambodian girl as a means to broaden the races of those involved.

"That is absolutely not true," spokeswoman Evelyn Sample-Oates said. Asian and African American students were identified and suspended, she said.

James T. Giles, a retired federal judge, conducted the district inquiry at the request of School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. The report named no students.

In an interview, Giles said his description of the Cambodian girl's actions had been based solely on the facts. She was deemed the "most violent" on Broad, where about 100 mostly African American youths surrounded 10 Vietnamese students, because she had been seen kicking a girl, he said.

"I can assure you there was no anti-Asian intention in the report I wrote," Giles said. "But people think what they want. There's nothing I can say to dissuade them from the views they have, nor would I attempt to."

The girl's involvement in the after-school attack "counters a proposition that all the attackers on Broad Street were black," he said. "If it's true the composition of the group was other than all black, then, as I said in the report, it requires looking at more complicated sociological issues than just black versus Asian."

The girl is a ninth grader who now attends a disciplinary school. She stands 5-foot-2 and weighs 98 pounds, all legs and long brown hair, and during the interview she wore stylish silver sandals, cutoff blue jeans, and a gray T-shirt. Her fingernails were manicured, the tips painted white.

Standing on the sidewalk near her South Philadelphia home, she slurped a cherry Popsicle. She had no idea the district existed. She said she had a long disciplinary record and had belonged to a street gang. But she said that on Dec. 3, she deliberately walked past the melee on Broad and was later shocked to be told by community liaison Wali Smith that she was being suspended.

"That's crazy," she said. "Mr. Wali Smith said, 'I saw you kick the Asian girl in the face. You ran across the street and kicked her in the face.' I said, 'No.' . . . Who's going to listen to a student? A teacher always wins."

Sample-Oates, the district spokeswoman, said Smith was not the only staffer to identify the girl. One of the victims and other eyewitnesses recognized her, she said.

The girl's mother, who speaks limited English, broke into tears at the mention of her daughter's name. She said the teen, the third-youngest of nine children, was impossible to control.

"I called the police on her last night," she said, sitting on the front steps of her rowhouse. "When I talk to her, she screams at me."

The girl's brother-in-law, Christopher Robinson, defended her as less culpable than others involved in the violence. It's true her gang pummeled new members as an initiation rite, but none carried guns or sold drugs, he said.

"I'm not saying she's an angel," Robinson said, adding that her past made her easy to blame.

The girl nodded.

"My record is real bad. I understand," she said.

Robinson said his sister-in-law, like some Cambodians born and raised here, identified with African American culture and sided with black students in disputes with Asian immigrants.

The district report said gang influences could not be excluded as a cause of some of the violence. Giles told The Inquirer that he had not researched the Cambodian girl's associations, and that his supposition of gang involvement had been based on other information.

Since the report's release, trying to determine the identity of the Cambodian girl has been the buzz among teachers at South Philadelphia High. After Dec. 3, she was suspended and transferred to Transitions South, an alternative school.

The Cambodian girl criticized the school disciplinary process as unjust. Two other Asian students who were punished also have said they were disciplined unfairly. In one case, the district retracted its allegation that one of the two, Hao Luu, was part of a gang.

In the interview, the Cambodian girl said her mother had attended her disciplinary hearing. But neither of them went to the second, formal hearing because the district notification did not arrive until it was over, the girl said.

Sample-Oates said the district had not been told the notice arrived late. The girl never contacted school or district officials to question her new school assignment, she said.

The Dec. 3 violence has spawned three investigations, including by the state Human Relations Commission and the U.S. Justice Department.

Giles' inquiry blamed the Dec. 3 violence on rumors that circulated after a confrontation between Asian and African American youths the previous day. Asian students dispute that, saying assaults against them have gone on unchecked for years.

They and their advocates say the key point is not the race of the attackers, even if one was Cambodian, but the fact that all the victims were Asian.

The Cambodian girl is first mentioned five pages into the 37-page report. Her role apparently started Dec. 2, the report said.

At 1:30 p.m. that day, a group of Asian and African American students had a verbal confrontation on the second floor of the school and were separated by school police. Afterward, at least two rumors emerged about the cause of the confrontation. One was that during third period "a Cambodian female had 'challenged' a group of three Vietnamese students to a fight."

At 3:15 p.m. that day, an after-school altercation occurred between African American and Asian students, including some who had been involved in the second-floor incident.

One of the victims to come forward publicly was Luu, a 17-year-old immigrant from Vietnam. He was beaten so badly that he vomited.

The report said one rumored assailant in that incident, which ended at a Walgreens store, was the Cambodian girl. The rumor was that "the arms of one of the Vietnamese students were held by African American females while the Cambodian female struck him in the head, rendering him unconscious."

The Cambodian girl told The Inquirer she had been involved in that fight, but only to aid a friend. An Asian boy "hit me with a shoe. I hit him back."

The first attack of Dec. 3 occurred at 8:45 a.m., when a group of mostly African American students assaulted an Asian student in Room 424, the report said.

At 10:30 a.m., eight Vietnamese youths went to school police and identified four African American assailants from the Walgreens incident.

"Apparently," the report said, "someone also identified a Cambodian female student as an assailant, as her name appears in the school police incident report."

The violence continued through the day.

The biggest attack occurred on Broad at dismissal, when the Vietnamese students were chased, surrounded, and beaten.

"A Cambodian female recognized by staff at the scene as an SPHS student was the first to attack the students," the report said, "and was reported to have been the most violent."

The victims could not identify their attackers, but "most of them did recognize the role that the Cambodian female played in initiating and participating in the attack," the report said. "The principal and other SPHS staff were close enough to the attack that they were able to clearly identify the Cambodian female."

The girl said the district had warned her that city police would charge her, but that never happened.

"We never had a court date or nothing," she said.
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