Rice, in Southeast Asia, Draws Fire for Plan to Avoid Forum

By JOEL BRINKLEY

New York Times

July 12, 2005

BAN BANG SAK, Thailand, July 11 - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled here on Monday to visit a village ravaged by the tsunami nearly seven months ago, saying she wanted to show that the United States "cares about Southeast Asia."

But she flew as well into a storm of criticism of her decision not to attend the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations convention late this month. If, as seems likely, her decision stands, she will be the first secretary of state in more than 20 years not to attend, and some of the region's leaders are upset by her choice to skip the meeting and send Robert B. Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state.

"Lots of people were offended by this decision," said a senior Asian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. "We all have respect for Mr. Zoellick, but it is a statement of her priorities."

"It's regrettable," said Syed Hamid Albar, the Malaysian foreign minister, quoted by Kyodo, the Japanese news agency. "I hope it is not an indication that the U.S. is giving less importance or showing less interest in Asean while focusing on the Middle East."

Realizing the problems her decision had caused, Ms. Rice planned this quick visit to Thailand - a five- hour flight south from China on Sunday, and then a seven-hour flight back north to Tokyo on Monday -during a trip to North Asia to discuss the North Korean nuclear program and other issues.

At a news conference in Phuket with the Thai foreign minister on Monday morning, she defended her decision, saying: "I am very sorry not to be going to the Asean summit this year. We have other vital travel in roughly the same time period."

Ms. Rice plans to visit Africa in the week before the Asean meeting but is tentatively scheduled to return a day or two before Mr. Zoellick is set to leave for the meeting, though an aide said the plans remain fluid.

The Thai foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, pressed Ms. Rice in their private meeting to explain why she would not attend, Thai and American officials said.

Some diplomats have speculated that she declined to attend the meeting, in Laos, because Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is to take over the chairmanship of Asean for the next year. The United States is highly critical of Myanmar's military government. Asked about that during the news conference, Ms. Rice did not respond directly.

The United States has criticized Myanmar for years for its repression of political dissidents, "and there never seems to be any progress," Ms. Rice said. "I asked our Thai friends who have relations with Burma and dialogue with Burma to continue to press the cases of those who are held, including Aung San Suu Kyi," the dissident leader.

From Phuket, Ms Rice flew here in a Thai military helicopter and drove to a school destroyed in the tsunami on Dec. 26. It is being rebuilt, this time on high ground, with help from the United States, including several students from the University of Iowa.

Ms. Rice's visit lasted 41 minutes, and her driver kept the engine running. Local officials reported to her on the progress of construction. The old school housed about 180 children. The new one, a large complex of dormitories and buildings, will house 1,000 children, including 300 tsunami orphans, said Barbara Franklin, a former president of the school's parent-teacher association.

About 50 elementary students in uniforms sang for Ms. Rice, trying mightily to pronounce the letters as they offered a chorus of "Now I know my A B C's." Ms. Rice asked them to repeat it so she could sing along, and they did. Sitting across the table from her was a boy who had lost seven relatives in the tsunami. At least 5,400 people in Thailand were killed in the catastrophe, 1,500 of them from this southern province.

"You may never know how much your presence here helps the morale of small kids, orphans," said Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, who accompanied her here.

As Ms. Rice left, a Thai reporter asked, "Why aren't you going to Asean?" The deputy prime minister said, "Tsunami questions only!"

But Ms. Rice repeated her explanation, then said, "I am here to show that I care about Southeast Asia."