July 4, 2005

Rice to visit Thailand, doubts over ARF meeting

By Nopporn Wong-Anan and Ed Cropley

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Ricewill visit tsunami-hit parts of Thailand next week, officialssaid Monday, fueling speculation she will snub a major securitymeeting in the region later in the month.

Rice is due to arrive on the southern resort island ofPhuket Sunday and to meet Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra andForeign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon the following day.

Foreign Ministry officials said post-tsunami rebuilding inThailand, where 5,400 died, would top the agenda although itwas "inevitable" the two sides would also address the divisiveissue of the military junta in neighboring Myanmar.

"The objective of her visit is to observe reconstructionefforts after the tsunami, so most of her meetings will be inPhuket," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said.

Rice's visit is part of an Asian trip including China,Japan and South Korea -- a schedule which appears to rule outher attending the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in the Laocapital of Vientiane on July 28-29.

Diplomatic sources have suggested Rice may skip the annualsecurity meeting, which U.S. Secretaries of State have attendedfor many years -- along with counterparts from ASEAN and China,Japan and North and South Korea -- in protest at theparticipation of Myanmar's ruling generals.

The United States and the European Union have imposedsanctions on the former Burma over the house arrest ofdemocracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the lack of progress towardmulti-party rule.

To the frustration of Washington, the 10-member Associationof South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has favored "constructiveengagement" to try and coax the junta toward democracy. Neitherpolicy has had any obvious success.

Washington insists there will be "high-level StateDepartment representation" at the ARF, although has declined tosay whether this means Rice or her deputy, Robert Zoellick.

Analysts said a Rice boycott would be a major slap in theface to a region where it has "war on terror" security concernsand where it is fast losing its edge to a rising China.

"It will be very interesting to see whether she actuallydoes not show up on the day itself, because that would beincredible," said Ralf Emmers of Singapore's Institute ofStrategic and Defense Studies.

"Not showing up to the only security forum in the region? Ithink quite a bit of explanation would need to be given," hesaid, adding that the snub would be even greater given thatRice has only just moved into the job.

The U.S. embassy in Bangkok said it had no details ofRice's travel plans.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand,Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia and thePhilippines.

Myanmar, which has been under military rule for more thanfour decades, is due to assume the group's alphabeticallyrotating chair in mid-2006 -- a timetable which has forced thecontroversy over ASEAN's "black sheep" into the open.