Archive for August 2nd, 2011

August 2, 2011

Laos starts engaging in international economy

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Like its fellow socialist neighbors China and Vietnam, Laos has remained politically closed but opened its economy to engage in global capitalism.

Tue Aug 2, 2011 2:11AM GMT

Rick Valenzuela, Press TV, Laos

Laos’ bourse opened in January. It remains tiny, with just two companies listed, both of which are state-owned. But its very existence is a reminder that Laos’ economy is no longer irrelevant to other countries in the region.

Still a sleepy capital by international standards, Vientiane is seeing an influx of foreign goods and development. On the riverfront, the city celebrates a former King who sought territory in Thailand. Now the country is opening its arms, welcoming foreign investors.

Driven by interest in Laos’ abundant natural resources – hydropower and mining in particular – foreign investment rose dramatically from $51 million in 2001 to $13.6 billion last year.

The stock exchange, says Vanthana Dalaloy, who heads the bourse, is a way to streamline and consolidate the money that’s pouring in.

Though trade remains extremely limited, companies and individuals from 20 countries – most within Asia – have invested, Dalaloy says.

Technical support from South Korea’s exchange, gives Laos’ credibility, she says.

But that’s no small consideration.

In the meantime, Greenlee says companies are likely to wait on the sidelines for a year or two before they decide whether or not to jump in.

But even as the stock exchange remains a tenuous enterprise, the Asian Development Bank says Laos’ broader economic intentions are clear.

And for a country that closed itself off after colonialization, it seems ready to play more in the international arena.

August 2, 2011

For the people: the Laos collaboration


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02 August 2011. By Katherine Nightingale

Unit 8, Laos

Ten years ago, information on infectious disease in Laos was scarce. The Wellcome Trust-Mahosot Hospital Oxford University Tropical Medicine Research Collaboration has gone some way to changing that. Katherine Nightingale visits the research unit run for the people, by the people, which has made giant leaps in a country’s medical knowledge.

Dr Paul Newton wasn’t expecting to get into goat husbandry when he came to Laos. But the three goats that live in the yard of the Mahosot Hospital in Vientiane earn their keep as a ready supply of blood for bacterial culture and are firmly part of the family.

That there have been no commercial suppliers of blood agar in Laos is no surprise. A small country of just six million people, Laos is one of the poorest in South-east Asia, sandwiched between the economically more vibrant Thailand and Vietnam. Its largely rural population suffers from range of infectious diseases, from the familiar (such as malaria and dengue fever) to others largely unheard of, or forgotten about, outside the region. The common Lao diseases murine and scrub typhus – forms of the bacterial disease typhus transmitted by fleas and mites, respectively – and melioidosis, a bacterial infection contracted through contaminated soil or water, have only been described in Laos in the last decade. But now, through what has grown to become the Wellcome Trust-Mahosot Hospital Oxford University Tropical Medicine Research Collaboration (LOMWRU), these diseases are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Starting from scratch

The Trust’s work in Laos began in 2000 in response to the almost complete lack of information about infectious disease in Laos, as well as the hospital’s lack of facilities for diagnosing infectious disease apart from malaria.

“Ten years ago, I sat with [Trust director] Mark Walport and handed him a stack of all the literature I could find about Lao health. The pile was this thick,” says Newton, now director of LOMWRU, indicating with his thumb and forefinger a pile around a centimetre tall.

The Ministry of Health was extrapolating from Thai, Vietnamese and even French studies to determine how to treat patients, even though the pathogens were likely to be different. There was no information on the best way to treat malaria, for example, or the main causes of fever, even though fever was – and remains – the most common symptom in people seeking medical attention in rural areas.

Early projects carried out by Lao doctors with Newton and the Trust’s Thailand programme included a study of drug resistance in Salmonella typhi, which causes typhoid fever. They found that most Salmonella typhi in Laos could be treated with short course of antibiotics, unlike in many other nearby countries. “That really brought home the fact that Laos needed Lao information about diseases,” says Newton.

Laos Unit 9

The LOMWRU unit. Image credit: LOMWRU/Joss Dimock.

Gradually research in Laos became more formalised, and by 2005 funding was coming from the core grant of the Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Programme in Thailand. The Laos collaboration is now one of the Programme’s three main research hubs. In 2008 the new Infectious Diseases Centre, with a 30-bed infectious disease ward and biosafety category 3 labs, was opened. There are now 42 staff working at LOMWRU – up from five when the work first began. Most of the researchers are Lao, and some also work at the University of Health Sciences, providing an important link between the two institutions.

From just three research areas – malaria, septicaemia and infantile beriberi (thiamin deficiency) – LOMWRU now runs more than 50 research projects, and the corridors of their brand-spanking new labs are lined with some of the 115 research papers about Lao disease that the programme has published in the past decade. LOMWRU was also key in launching the country’s first medical journal, the ‘Lao Medical Journal’, in 2010, providing a new way to distribute health information in the Lao language.

For the people


In a country where a person can easily die with fever without ever seeking medical attention, studying the diagnosis, epidemiology and treatment of the diverse causes of fever are central to the programme’s work.

“It all started with the question of fever…and to a certain extent that what’s we’re still trying to find out. It’s a real Pandora’s box, we keep uncovering more questions than we’re answering,” says Newton.

Dr Mayfong Mayxay, head of field research at LOMWRU and head of the University of Health Sciences’ new research centre, says the collaboration’s work has vastly improved diagnosis and treatment.

“In the past the doctors in our hospital found it difficult to request the blood cultures for the patients with prolonged fever because most could not afford to pay and hence there were very few data on the causes of fever. But now blood cultures have become routine tests that the doctors can request easily.”

But Newton and Mayxay agree that perhaps the collaboration’s most significant achievement has been in malaria treatment research. LOMWRU researchers showed that the use of an antimalarial called artemether-lumefantrine was much more effective than the national policy of treating uncomplicated Plasmodium falciparum malaria with the older drugs chloroquine and sulphadoxine-pyrimethamine, prompting the government to change treatment guidelines.

Another important step has been the finding that murine and scrub typhus are an important cause of non-malarial fever in Laos. Newton says there is little evidence on the best way to treat scrub typhus and none on murine, so they are now carrying out clinical trials to find out. “The Ministry of Health is very receptive to hearing results and considering changes in health policy,” he says. Finding better treatment saves lives, but also drugs and hospital resources. The latter two are crucial factors in Laos’ out-of-pocket health system. But as well as helping the system, it also saves patients money, both for the treatment they receive and by reducing the time they need to spend in hospital.

The researchers are on the trail of drug counterfeiters too. LOMWRU-coordinated researchers were the first in the world to use chemical and pollen analysis of fakes of the antimalarial artesunate, common in SE Asia, to trace where they were coming from, leading to the 2008 arrest and later imprisonment of six traders of fake antimalarials.

Lab hood (Laos)

A researcher at LOMWRU. Image credit: LOMWRU/Joss Dimock.

But challenges remain. “Clinical research is still a new thing for Lao health workers and the Lao authorities…we have a limited number of ‘true’ clinical researchers in the country who are able to conduct studies and write up papers for publication in international peer-reviewed journals,” says Mayxay.

On-the-job research training, as well as Masters and PhD supervision, is therefore a fundamental part of the collaboration’s activities, and Mayxay is optimistic. “We will have an increasing number of Lao clinical researchers who will become independent clinical researchers in Laos in the near future,” he says.

As Laos’ fledgling health research expands, Newton is keen to make sure that the programme maintains its broad research base. “We don’t want to be duplicating research that others are doing, but we don’t want any of these ‘forgotten’ diseases to get left behind,” he says.

Outside in the humid afternoon, Godwin the goat is installed in a contraption resembling an elaborate bike stand, placidly munching on some leaves, patiently waiting to give blood. Everyone is doing their bit.

Top image: Godwin the goat outside LOMWRU. Credit: LOMWRU/Joss Dimock.

August 2, 2011

China muscling U.S. aside in Thailand

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By Richard S. Ehrlich – Special to The Washington Times

**FILE** Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (Associated Press)

BANGKOK — The United States is worried about China’s growing influence in Thailand, as Washington’s prestige appears to be fading with America’s oldest South Asian ally.

Former U.S. Ambassador Eric John warned of China’s assertive diplomacy in a confidential cable before he left his post in Bangkok in September.

Mr. John pointed out “China’s sustained, successful efforts to court Southeast Asia and Thailand” in his report to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Thai “government officials and academics sympathetic to the U.S. see the dynamic of China rising — and the U.S. receding — likely to continue, unless the U.S. takes more vigorous action to follow-up with sustained efforts to engage on issues that matter to the Thai [people] and the region, not just what is perceived as the U.S.’s own agenda,” Mr. John said in the cable released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Thailand and the United States established diplomatic relations in 1833.

Mr. John also said China is competing strongly with the United States on the cultural front, noting “many Chinese diplomats [who] are fully fluent” in the Thai language.

Chinese Ambassador Guan Mu is one of those Thai-speaking diplomats. He sent 17 years of his diplomatic career in Thailand, rising to the post of ambassador in 2009. Mr. Mu frequently appears on Thai television.

Mr. John, who speaks Korean and Vietnamese, sent three years in Bangkok; and the new U.S. ambassador, Kristie Kenney, who speaks French and Spanish, arrived in January.

China also has marshaled a parade of high-level visitors to Thailand in recent years.

In 2009, alone, Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Bangkok for a meetings with Asian leaders, while Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie came for military talks.

Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited China five times that year, while Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya also held talks in Beijing.

China also avoids criticizing Thailand.

In 2006, when Thailand’s military staged a coup and toppled the prime minister, Washington suspended $24 million in military assistance and restricted high-level meetings.

China described the coup as Bangkok’s internal affair, gave Thailand $49 million in military aid and increased the number of exchange students at Chinese and Thai military staff colleges. Beijing also persuaded the Thai military to participate in yearly, small-scale special forces joint exercises.

Last year, Chinese and Thai special forces held a 15-day joint antiterrorism drill, and more than 100 Chinese marines from an amphibious special warfare held exercises with their Thai counterparts.

But China has sold inferior weaponry to Thailand, making some Thai military officials wary of becoming dependent on Chinese supplies.

Thailand’s incoming prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, appears eager to expand business ties with China. She favors a Chinese proposal to construct high-speed trains and replace Thailand’s decrepit railway.

In January, Chinese investors began building a $1.5 billion China City Complex near Bangkok to manufacture clothing, household items and other goods.

Chinese migrants have been settling in Thailand for generations, arriving through Laos and across the Mekong River or, more often, by sea from China’s southeast coastal towns to Bangkok.

Today many ethnic Chinese hold some of Thailand’s highest political, economic, military and cultural positions.

Chinese faces, fashions and symbols are promoted in Thai advertisements and pop culture as badges of financial success.

Several top Thai corporations, meanwhile, are trying to make profits by investing in China and hoping to copy the success of Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group, which opened a chicken-processing plant in China in 1979.

The CP Groupt also invested in huge supermarkets, entertainment complexes and other industries.

Thai exporters use Bangkok’s port to ship goods along the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea into Hong Kong.

China, however, produces much larger and more diversified foods for export into Thailand, threatening local producers.

“People in Thailand are worried,” one former Thai diplomat told The Washington Times. “China’s economy is so big, and ours is so small, that we cannot compete with all the Chinese things being sold here.”

Another official expressed alarm over China’s growing economic clout.

China will own us!” she declared. “Thailand will be like a vassal of China.”

Both asked not to be identified so they could talk candidly about China’s increasing influence in Thailand.

August 2, 2011

Vietnam Dissident’s 7-Year Sentence Upheld

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(HANOI, Vietnam) — An appeals court upheld the seven-year prison sentence for the dissident son of one of Vietnam’s founding revolutionaries Tuesday, despite arguments that his support for a multiparty system did not mean he was against the Communist Party.

The ruling against Cu Huy Ha Vu drew immediate criticism from activists and the U.S. government, which said it had serious concerns about human rights in Vietnam despite its improving relations with Hanoi.

Vu, a human rights lawyer educated in France, said he was innocent of charges including spreading propaganda against the state and called the case against him a conspiracy.

“I did not oppose the Communist Party of Vietnam,” Vu told the court. “I only demanded a multiparty system that would allow healthy competition for the ultimate interests of the people and of the nation.” (See pictures of the Hmong in Laos, the forgotten ally of the U.S. during the Vietnam War.)

Prosecutors said, however, that Vu’s actions violated national security and abused freedom of speech.

At one point during the hearing, as the prosecutor cited evidence suggesting Vu had branded the government a dictatorship, Vu interrupted and said “Yes, it’s a dictatorship.” He was seen turning to his wife and uncle in the gallery and holding up his fingers in a victory sign three times.

Vu’s case has been seen as a test for the government, given the notoriety of his family’s allegiance to Vietnam. He is the son of Cu Huy Can, a well-known Vietnamese poet and revolutionary leader in the government formed by late President Ho Chi Minh when he declared independence from France in 1945.

The government does not tolerate challenges to its one-party rule, but Hanoi maintains that only lawbreakers are punished.

Vu’s arrest and trial in April have been the subject of much Internet chatter, with many questioning whether the initial sentence, including an additional three years of house arrest, was too harsh.

Vu, who holds a law doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris but no license to practice in Vietnam, has twice tried to sue the prime minister — once over a controversial Chinese-built bauxite mining project, and again after the premier blocked class-action lawsuits from being filed. Both cases were thrown out of court.

Vu was convicted of calling for an end to the one-party rule, defaming the state, demanding the abolishment of the Communist Party’s leadership and calling the war against the United States a civil war.

The appeals court on Tuesday confirmed the verdict and sentence, saying there was no basis for dismissing the case.

Presiding Judge Nguyen Van Son said the 53-year-old Vu had demonstrated “contempt for the law and could not be re-educated.”

After the one-day hearing, Vu said the decision was a form of “revenge” against him and vowed to continue to fight for Vietnam.

“My family of four generations has been fighting for and dying for the country,” Vu said, adding that his father was “one of the people who gave birth to this regime that is putting me on trial today.”

Foreign media and diplomats were barred from the courtroom, but were allowed to watch the proceedings via closed-circuit television from an adjacent room. No cameras or tape recorders were permitted.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said an officer from the U.S. Embassy was allowed to attend.

“We continue to urge the government of Vietnam to immediately release Mr. Vu, as well as all other prisoners of conscience, and believe that no individual should be in prison for exercising their right to free speech,” Toner told a news conference in Washington on Tuesday.

He described the U.S. relationship with its former enemy as generally very good, but said Washington would continue to press the Vietnamese government on human rights issues.

Human Rights Watch criticized the initial trial, during which one of Vu’s defense attorneys was ejected from the court and the other three walked out in protest after repeatedly being denied a request for access to 10 interviews Vu gave to foreign media that were being used as key evidence against him.

“Dr. Vu was jailed for political reasons in a trial that violated his rights,” the group’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement Tuesday.

About a dozen of Vu’s supporters gathered outside the Hanoi courthouse Tuesday before police sealed off the area. One woman waved a placard that read: “My brother is innocent.”

Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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