- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

Ambassadors on tour

Southeast Asia is a major trading partner with the United States and is a region of democratic development threatened by Islamist terrorism, a group of U.S. ambassadors said yesterday.

The five diplomats on a tour of U.S. cities told editors and reporters at The Washington Times that U.S. investment in Southeast Asia is more than $88 billion, making the region America’s largest market after Canada, the European Union and Japan.

Although terrorism makes the headlines, “democratization is the big story that is overlooked,” said Ralph Boyce, ambassador to Indonesia.

More than 80 percent of Indonesia’s 7 million registered voters cast ballots in April’s legislative elections, he said. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, with more than 225 million people, rejected Islamic fundamentalist parties. The country has presidential elections scheduled for July 5 with a runoff on Sept. 20.

Of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are either full democracies or have constitutional monarchies with elected legislatures. Laos and Vietnam remain communist, and Burma is a military dictatorship. Brunei is a hereditary monarchy with unelected advisory councils.

Franklin Lavin, ambassador to Singapore, noted four trends in the region.

“The economies are rebounding after two years of downturn. There is some sunny [economic] weather in the past six months,” he said.

Political change is “mostly peaceful and overwhelmingly democratic,” he added. Malaysia held legislative elections in March, and the Philippines held presidential and legislative elections in May.

Relations with the United States concentrate on free trade and open markets, although Islamist violence remains the most “serious challenge” in the region, Mr. Lavin said.

Raymond Burghardt, the second ambassador to a postwar Vietnam, said U.S. relations with Hanoi continue to develop.

“We are still putting pieces together,” he said.

Darryl Johnson, ambassador to Thailand, noted the strong U.S.-Thai military cooperation, while Douglas Hartwick, ambassador to Laos, expects new U.S. trade legislation will expand economic ties with the communist state.

Mr. Burghardt said many regional leaders are concerned about China’s growing economic power.

“There is a complex reaction. They are concerned about undue influence, but China is also a major market,” he said.

Some diplomats in the region refer to China’s charm offensive that includes appointing ambassadors who are fluent in the languages of their host countries. Many are experts at social diplomacy.

“Some even play golf,” Mr. Burghardt said.

The five U.S. ambassadors at the meeting also speak the languages of the countries in which they serve.

Terrorism is stalking the region, especially in Indonesia where Islamist extremists attacked the resort island of Bali in 2002 and a luxury hotel in the capital, Jakarta, last year. The Jemaah Islamiyah group, linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, was blamed for both attacks.

Mr. Boyce said Indonesia authorities tried to ignore the presence of Jemaah Islamiyah.

“They were in total denial before Bali, which was a tragic wake-up call,” he said. “They got the message. These guys are here [in Indonesia], and they are homegrown.”

The ambassadors’ tour of Houston; Atlanta; Louisville, Ky.; and Washington was organized by the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.

New from India

India’s new government plans to name its former ambassador to Britain to serve in Washington, according to Indian news reports.

Ronen Sen will replace Lalit Mansingh, who served as ambassador in Washington for two years until his retirement this spring.

• Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@ washingtontimes.com.

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