SE Asian strongmen attend US summit
WASHINGTON—A coup leader with a penchant for song. A sultan with a taste for the high life. A ruthless prime minister with 31 years on the job. A former furniture salesman. A communist politburo veteran. A prime minister trying to shake off a $700-million financial scandal.
When US President Barack Obama welcomes Southeast Asian leaders for a shirt-sleeves summit on Monday in California, he’ll have some interesting dining companions.
For the first time, the American leader has invited to the United States all the leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a diverse and democratically challenged 10-nation grouping.
Several of the invitees have not come to power through free and fair elections.
They include Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in a May 2014 coup, has cracked down on critics and dissidents and repeatedly pushed back the date for new elections.
Guile and brute force
Hun Sen from neighboring Cambodia is making his first official US visit as leader, although he’s been prime minister since 1985.
He has used a combination of guile and brute force to stay in power, including a violent coup in 1997. In recent months he has intensified pressure on the political opposition.
Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asia, defended the invitations, saying the United States was not going overboard by rolling out the red carpet for “problematic leaders.”
But Human Rights Watch, said inviting unelected leaders represented “an unearned diplomatic reward.” In a presummit report surveying the record of Asean members, the group it concluded most “have an extraordinarily poor human rights record.”
In 2014, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of oil-rich Brunei, introduced Shariah criminal law that calls for punishing adultery, abortions and same-sex relationships with flogging and stoning, an action that prompted a Hollywood boycott of Beverly Hills Hotel, which he owns.
Also attending is Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been dogged by a scandal over a state investment fund and accusations of a lavish lifestyle.
From neighboring Indonesia comes President Joko Widodo, a more down-at-heels leader who rose from being a furniture seller to running the world’s fourth-most populated country.
Four of the invitees are “lame ducks” with little time left in office, like Obama. At least one of them, from Burma (Myanmar), is skipping the summit and sending a deputy instead. AP
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