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Rice to skip Southeast Asian summit, says region is still a priority

BAN BANG SAK, Thailand—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confronted disappointment in Asia on Monday over her decision to skip a summit of Southeast Asian leaders, which has caused concern here over the United States' commitment to the region.

Rice, during a brief stop to survey post-tsunami reconstruction efforts, confirmed she'll bypass the late July meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. She'll be the first U.S. secretary of state in more than 20 years not to attend.

She insisted that this strategic area—where China's economic pull is growing—remains a priority for the Bush administration.

But Thailand's foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, asked Rice during a private meeting to reconsider her decision, according to a senior U.S. official traveling with her.

In nearby Malaysia, Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, called Rice's decision "regrettable," according to local news reports.

"It is hoped that Rice's absence does not indicate that the U.S. is giving less importance or showing less interest in ASEAN while focusing on the Middle East," the Malaysian foreign minister was quoted as saying.

After touring a school rebuilding project in Thailand's tsunami-devastated Phang Nga province, a Thai journalist asked Rice about her decision.

"I'm here in Thailand to show how much the United States cares about Southeast Asia," she replied.

Rice said she's sending her deputy, Robert Zoellick, a former U.S. trade representative, to the ASEAN meetings in Laos. Other travel commitments prevent her from going, she said.

Trying to soften the blow, she noted that "Bob is a somewhat unusual deputy in that he was a Cabinet secretary."

President Bush earned good will in Southeast Asia with the U.S. response to the Dec. 26 tsunami, which left more than 225,000 dead or missing in nine countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The United States pledged $350 million and deployed a Navy task force to speed relief.

But tensions remain, including over how to deal with the military junta in Burma, which is an ASEAN member. Most of its neighbors favor engagement, while the Bush administration and Congress have enacted sanctions to force the regime to yield power.

Rice downplayed the issue during a news conference with Kantathi in the Thai resort of Phuket.

"We hope, of course, that everyone can do more" to pressure Rangoon, Rice said. While the junta repeatedly has promised moves toward democracy, she said, "there seems never to be progress."

Rice flew by helicopter from a Thai naval base outside Phuket to an area of Phang Nga province where more than 4,500 people—many of them foreign tourists—died in the tsunami.

Her helicopter flew over stretches of trees flattened by the wall of water, which reached 100 feet high in places. In all, 8,000 people are dead or missing in Thailand, which suffered harm to its lucrative tourism and shrimp industries. Indonesia, by contrast, lost 165,000 people.

In the village of Ban Bang Sak, Rice was greeted by dozens of polite, smiling schoolchildren in crisp blue-and-white uniforms.

Their previous school disappeared in the tsunami, except for a lone flagpole still standing.

"That one was obliterated. It was just gone," said Barbra Franklin, co-chair of a tsunami relief effort mounted by the International School Bangkok. Desks were found 30 feet up in a tree, she said.

A new school is being built uphill and farther from the ocean. The new complex will have a third- through 12th-grade school for 300 orphans and 700 other students and eight new dormitories. The secretary of state joined the children in singing the "Alphabet Song."

The continued outpouring of support from the United States "is testimony to the saying that a friend in need is a friend indeed," said Thailand's deputy prime minister, Surakiart Sathirathai.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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