Bangkok – For the first time in 20 years, a US Secretary of State will not be gracing the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and the Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC) that will be held in the Laotian capital of Vientiane on July 28-29. Some analysts describe Dr Condoleezza Rice's absence as a diplomatic snub for Asean; others link it to pressure on Asean to block Myanmar from assuming the rotating chairmanship next year.
Regional diplomats told AFP that Dr Rice had informed Asean foreign ministers that she could not make it to the meetings due to a clash of schedules. But few are willing to accept her explanation at face value.
According to a commentary in The Nation, the differences between Asean and Washington over how to deal with Myanmar have widened under Dr Rice's stewardship at the State Department.
Military-ruled Myanmar's refusal to embark on political reforms and release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest has angered many Western countries. As such, Myanmar's turn to take over the Asean chair next year has presented the United States and the European Union with the perfect opportunity to pressure the 10-member organisation into taking tougher action against the ruling junta in Yangon.
"Her decision to skip the Asean meeting during her first year will not resonate well in the region, but will send a strong signal to Asean that Burma remains an issue in their bilateral ties.
"Unless and until the group cleans up its own act, it will be difficult for her to attend. Her deputy, Robert Zoellick, will represent her at Vientiane and in future meetings," veteran journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in the Thai newspaper.
Mr Andrew Tan, a security analyst with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) in Singapore, said Dr Rice's absence should not come as a surprise because President George W Bush's unilateral-focused administration had downgraded the importance of multilateral forums like the ARF.
But he told AFP that the US had "many friends" in Southeast Asia, and Dr Rice's absence was unlikely to leave Washington alienated in a major way.
* Rice signals tougher US policy on Burma (The Nation, July 11)
* A different Rice signal to US (New Straits Times, July 10)
* Rice to skip Asean talks, may be viewed as snub by region (The Jakarta Post, July 8)