India Dismisses US Religious Freedom Report

India says it is proud of its secular credentials as it rejected a U.S. report that said that religious freedom in the country has come under attack in recent years.

The latest U.S. State Department Report on International Religious Freedom released Friday said that right wing Hindu-groups claiming to protect cows that Hindus consider holy had used “violence, intimidation, and harassment” against Muslims and low-castes. It also noted that Christians have been targeted for proselytizing.

In a statement, the Indian Foreign Ministry said that no foreign government had the right to criticize its record. “We see no locus standi for a foreign entity to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.” It said that India is proud of “its status as the largest democracy and a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusion.”

New Delhi’s sharply worded statement comes ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to India starting Tuesday. His talks in New Delhi are expected to lay the ground for a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Japan later next week.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also rejected the U.S. report on religious freedom saying that the presumption that “there is some grand design behind anti-minority violence is simply false.”

In a statement, party media head Anil Baluni said that Prime Minister Modi and other BJP leaders have strongly deplored violence against minorities and weaker sections of the society.

The U.S. report had said that senior BJP officials had last year made “inflammatory speeches” against religious minorities and that despite Indian government statistics indicating that communal violence has increased sharply over the past two years, the Modi administration has not addressed the problem.

 

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Trump Counting on His Base to Deliver in 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump won under the U.S. electoral college system but lost the popular vote. His approval ratings have consistently been below 50 percent. Yet in a recent interview with TIME Magazine, Trump said he doesn’t need to reach out to independent voters because his “base is so strong.”  Who makes up Trump’s base, what motivates them, and will their support be enough to deliver a second term for Trump? White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara traveled to Orlando, Florida for Trump’s re-election campaign launch and brings back this report.

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Trump Counting on His Base to Deliver in 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump won under the U.S. electoral college system but lost the popular vote. His approval ratings have consistently been below 50 percent. Yet in a recent interview with TIME Magazine, Trump said he doesn’t need to reach out to independent voters because his “base is so strong.”  Who makes up Trump’s base, what motivates them, and will their support be enough to deliver a second term for Trump? White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara traveled to Orlando, Florida for Trump’s re-election campaign launch and brings back this report.

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Kushner Unveils $50 Billion ‘Peace to Prosperity’ Plan for Mideast

The White House on Saturday outlined a $50 billion Middle East economic plan that would create a global investment fund to lift the Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies, and fund a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

The “peace to prosperity” plan, set to be presented by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner at an international conference in Bahrain next week, includes 179 infrastructure and business projects, according to details of the plan and interviews with U.S. officials. The approach toward reviving the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process was criticized by the Palestinians Saturday.

FILE – Palestinians step on Israeli and U.S. flags and hold posters of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against Bahrain’s workshop for U.S. peace plan, in the Gaza Strip June 18, 2019

No peace, no economic revival

The ambitious economic revival plan, the product of two years of work by Kushner and other aides, would take place only if a political solution to the region’s long-running problems is reached.

More than half of the $50 billion would be spent in the economically troubled Palestinian territories over 10 years while the rest would be split between Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Some of the projects would be in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where investments could benefit Palestinians living in adjacent Gaza, a crowded and impoverished coastal enclave.

The plan also proposes nearly a billion dollars to build up the Palestinians’ tourism sector, a seemingly impractical notion for now given the frequent flare-ups between Israeli forces and militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza, and the tenuous security in the occupied West Bank. 

The Trump administration hopes that wealthy Gulf states and nations in Europe and Asia, along with private investors, would foot much of the bill, Kushner told Reuters.

“The whole notion here is that we want people to agree on the plan and then we’ll have a discussion with people to see who is interested in potentially doing what,” Kushner told Reuters Television.

FILE – Hanan Ashrawi

Palestinians boycott unveiling 

The unveiling of the economic blueprint follows two years of deliberations and delays in rolling out a broader peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians, who are boycotting the event, have refused to talk to the Trump administration since it recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in late 2017.

Veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi dismissed the proposals Saturday, saying: “These are all intentions, these are all abstract promises” and said only a political solution would solve the conflict.

Kushner made clear in two interviews with Reuters that he sees his detailed formula as a game-changer, despite the view of many Middle East experts that he has little chance of success where decades of U.S.-backed peace efforts have failed.

“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘Deal of the Century,’” Kushner said of Palestinian leaders who have dismissed his plan as an attempt to buy off their aspirations for statehood. “This is going to be the ‘Opportunity of the Century’ if they have the courage to pursue it.”

Kushner said some Palestinian business executives have confirmed their participation in the conference, but he declined to identify them. The overwhelming majority of the Palestinian business community will not attend, businessmen in the West Bank city of Ramallah told Reuters.

Several Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, will also participate in the June 25-26 U.S.-led gathering in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, for Kushner’s rollout of the first phase of the Trump peace plan. Their presence, some U.S. officials say privately, appears intended in part to curry favor with Trump as he takes a hard line against Iran, those countries’ regional archfoe.

The White House said it decided against inviting the Israeli government because the Palestinian Authority would not be there, making do instead with a small Israeli business delegation.

Israel, West Bank, Gaza map

Political disputes remain

There are strong doubts whether potential donor governments would be willing to open their checkbooks anytime soon, as long as the thorny political disputes at the heart of the decades-old Palestinian conflict remain unresolved.

The 38-year-old Kushner, who like his father-in-law came to government steeped in the world of New York real estate deal-making, seems to be treating peacemaking in some ways like a business transaction, analysts and former U.S. officials say.

Palestinian officials reject the overall U.S.-led peace effort as heavily tilted in favor of Israel and likely to deny them a fully sovereign state of their own.

Kushner’s attempt to decide economic priorities first while initially sidestepping politics ignores the realities of the conflict, say many experts.

“This is completely out of sequence because the Israeli-Palestinian issue is primarily driven by historical wounds and overlapping claims to land and sacred space,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations.

Kushner acknowledges that “you can’t push the economic plan forward without resolving the political issues as well.” The administration, he said, will “address that at a later time,” referring to the second stage of the peace plan’s rollout now expected no earlier than November.

Kushner says his approach is aimed at laying out economic incentives to show the Palestinians the potential for a prosperous future if they return to the table to negotiate a peace deal.

Kushner stressed that governments would not be expected to make financial pledges on the spot.

“It is a small victory that they are all showing up to listen and partake. In the old days, the Palestinian leaders would have spoken and nobody would have disobeyed,” he said.

West Bank to Gaza travel corridor

Kushner’s proposed new investment fund for the Palestinians and neighboring states would be administered by a “multilateral development bank.” Global financial lenders including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank plan to be present at the meeting.

The fund would include “accountability, transparency, anti-corruption, and conditionality safeguards” to protect investments.

A signature project would be to construct a travel corridor for Palestinian use that would cross Israel to link the West Bank and Gaza. It could include a highway and possibly a rail line. The narrowest distance between the territories, whose populations have long been divided by Israeli travel restrictions, is about 40 km (25 miles).

Kushner said that if executed the plan would create a million jobs in the West Bank and Gaza, reduce Palestinian poverty by half and double the Palestinians’ GDP.

But most foreign investors will likely stay clear for the moment, not only because of security and corruption concerns but also because of the drag on the Palestinian economy from Israel’s West Bank occupation that obstructs the flow of people, goods and services, experts say.

Marshall Plan approach

Kushner sees his economic approach as resembling the Marshall Plan, which Washington introduced in 1948 to rebuild Western Europe from the devastation of World War II. Unlike the U.S.-funded Marshall Plan, however, the latest initiative would put much of the financial burden on other countries.

President Donald Trump would “consider making a big investment in it” if there is a good governance mechanism, Kushner said. But he was non-committal about how much the president, who has often proved himself averse to foreign aid, might contribute.

Economic programs have been tried before in the long line of U.S.-led peace efforts, only to fail for lack of political progress. Kushner’s approach, however, may be the most detailed so far, presented in two pamphlets of 40 and 96 pages each that are filled with financial tables and economic projections.

In Manama, the yet-to-released political part of the plan will not be up for discussion, Kushner said.
 

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Kushner Unveils $50 Billion ‘Peace to Prosperity’ Plan for Mideast

The White House on Saturday outlined a $50 billion Middle East economic plan that would create a global investment fund to lift the Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies, and fund a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

The “peace to prosperity” plan, set to be presented by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner at an international conference in Bahrain next week, includes 179 infrastructure and business projects, according to details of the plan and interviews with U.S. officials. The approach toward reviving the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process was criticized by the Palestinians Saturday.

FILE – Palestinians step on Israeli and U.S. flags and hold posters of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against Bahrain’s workshop for U.S. peace plan, in the Gaza Strip June 18, 2019

No peace, no economic revival

The ambitious economic revival plan, the product of two years of work by Kushner and other aides, would take place only if a political solution to the region’s long-running problems is reached.

More than half of the $50 billion would be spent in the economically troubled Palestinian territories over 10 years while the rest would be split between Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Some of the projects would be in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where investments could benefit Palestinians living in adjacent Gaza, a crowded and impoverished coastal enclave.

The plan also proposes nearly a billion dollars to build up the Palestinians’ tourism sector, a seemingly impractical notion for now given the frequent flare-ups between Israeli forces and militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza, and the tenuous security in the occupied West Bank. 

The Trump administration hopes that wealthy Gulf states and nations in Europe and Asia, along with private investors, would foot much of the bill, Kushner told Reuters.

“The whole notion here is that we want people to agree on the plan and then we’ll have a discussion with people to see who is interested in potentially doing what,” Kushner told Reuters Television.

FILE – Hanan Ashrawi

Palestinians boycott unveiling 

The unveiling of the economic blueprint follows two years of deliberations and delays in rolling out a broader peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians, who are boycotting the event, have refused to talk to the Trump administration since it recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in late 2017.

Veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi dismissed the proposals Saturday, saying: “These are all intentions, these are all abstract promises” and said only a political solution would solve the conflict.

Kushner made clear in two interviews with Reuters that he sees his detailed formula as a game-changer, despite the view of many Middle East experts that he has little chance of success where decades of U.S.-backed peace efforts have failed.

“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘Deal of the Century,’” Kushner said of Palestinian leaders who have dismissed his plan as an attempt to buy off their aspirations for statehood. “This is going to be the ‘Opportunity of the Century’ if they have the courage to pursue it.”

Kushner said some Palestinian business executives have confirmed their participation in the conference, but he declined to identify them. The overwhelming majority of the Palestinian business community will not attend, businessmen in the West Bank city of Ramallah told Reuters.

Several Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, will also participate in the June 25-26 U.S.-led gathering in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, for Kushner’s rollout of the first phase of the Trump peace plan. Their presence, some U.S. officials say privately, appears intended in part to curry favor with Trump as he takes a hard line against Iran, those countries’ regional archfoe.

The White House said it decided against inviting the Israeli government because the Palestinian Authority would not be there, making do instead with a small Israeli business delegation.

Israel, West Bank, Gaza map

Political disputes remain

There are strong doubts whether potential donor governments would be willing to open their checkbooks anytime soon, as long as the thorny political disputes at the heart of the decades-old Palestinian conflict remain unresolved.

The 38-year-old Kushner, who like his father-in-law came to government steeped in the world of New York real estate deal-making, seems to be treating peacemaking in some ways like a business transaction, analysts and former U.S. officials say.

Palestinian officials reject the overall U.S.-led peace effort as heavily tilted in favor of Israel and likely to deny them a fully sovereign state of their own.

Kushner’s attempt to decide economic priorities first while initially sidestepping politics ignores the realities of the conflict, say many experts.

“This is completely out of sequence because the Israeli-Palestinian issue is primarily driven by historical wounds and overlapping claims to land and sacred space,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations.

Kushner acknowledges that “you can’t push the economic plan forward without resolving the political issues as well.” The administration, he said, will “address that at a later time,” referring to the second stage of the peace plan’s rollout now expected no earlier than November.

Kushner says his approach is aimed at laying out economic incentives to show the Palestinians the potential for a prosperous future if they return to the table to negotiate a peace deal.

Kushner stressed that governments would not be expected to make financial pledges on the spot.

“It is a small victory that they are all showing up to listen and partake. In the old days, the Palestinian leaders would have spoken and nobody would have disobeyed,” he said.

West Bank to Gaza travel corridor

Kushner’s proposed new investment fund for the Palestinians and neighboring states would be administered by a “multilateral development bank.” Global financial lenders including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank plan to be present at the meeting.

The fund would include “accountability, transparency, anti-corruption, and conditionality safeguards” to protect investments.

A signature project would be to construct a travel corridor for Palestinian use that would cross Israel to link the West Bank and Gaza. It could include a highway and possibly a rail line. The narrowest distance between the territories, whose populations have long been divided by Israeli travel restrictions, is about 40 km (25 miles).

Kushner said that if executed the plan would create a million jobs in the West Bank and Gaza, reduce Palestinian poverty by half and double the Palestinians’ GDP.

But most foreign investors will likely stay clear for the moment, not only because of security and corruption concerns but also because of the drag on the Palestinian economy from Israel’s West Bank occupation that obstructs the flow of people, goods and services, experts say.

Marshall Plan approach

Kushner sees his economic approach as resembling the Marshall Plan, which Washington introduced in 1948 to rebuild Western Europe from the devastation of World War II. Unlike the U.S.-funded Marshall Plan, however, the latest initiative would put much of the financial burden on other countries.

President Donald Trump would “consider making a big investment in it” if there is a good governance mechanism, Kushner said. But he was non-committal about how much the president, who has often proved himself averse to foreign aid, might contribute.

Economic programs have been tried before in the long line of U.S.-led peace efforts, only to fail for lack of political progress. Kushner’s approach, however, may be the most detailed so far, presented in two pamphlets of 40 and 96 pages each that are filled with financial tables and economic projections.

In Manama, the yet-to-released political part of the plan will not be up for discussion, Kushner said.
 

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Mekong Region Grows More Important to China-US Relations

Amid increasingly tense China-U.S. relations, a U.S. official alluded to China but did not specifically name China regarding “risks” and “challenges” imposed by approaches to dam building and cross-border riverine practices in the Mekong region.

At a workshop in Phnom Penh by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), the U.S. Embassy’s chargé d’affaires, Michael Newbill, said the actions of “a single nation” in the Mekong region are “worrisome” to both the riverine countries and the U.S.

“In the last two years, shifting geopolitical dynamics have begun to pose major new challenges,” Newbill said.

“We have seen the growth of debt dependency; disproportionate control over dozens of upstream dams by a single nation; plans to blast and dredge riverbeds,” he added in remarks later posted to the U.S. Embassy website.

FILE – A Chinese construction worker stands at the Colombo Port City in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 2, 2018. President Maithripala Sirisena’s government had criticized the previous administration for leading the country into a Chinese debt trap.

The notion of debt dependency, or debt-trap, emerged in 2017. It refers to China’s practice of offering funding for projects that enable Beijing’s access to local resources rather than helping a local economy. Instead, the countries become “vulnerable to China’s influence.”

A senior embassy official, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter, confirmed that Newbill was referring to China when he referenced “a single nation” last week.

The U.S. diplomat went on to say the “risks” of having one country dominate planning for the Mekong region include the erosion of existing governance, the presence of extraterritorial river patrols, trans-boundary crimes, and trafficking of drugs, wildlife and humans.

“All these trends pose risks to the autonomy, economic independence, and water, energy and food security across the Mekong region,” Newbill said.

The Mekong River runs more than 4,300 kilometers through six countries, vital to large populations for farming, fishing, drinking water, industry and power generation.

He added that the region, which includes China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, is “strategically important” to the U.S. given that Washington treaty ally Thailand and increasingly important strategic partner Vietnam are in the region.

The same senior embassy official, who was one of the staffers involved in the preparation of Newbill’s speech, added that the chargé d’affaires also meant China is responsible for all of the risks he mentioned.

‘Potential area of power competition’

Separately, Sek Sophal, a researcher at Japan’s Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies, told VOA Khmer in an email, “Even though he [Newbill] did not name any specific country, it is obvious that China meets all of the points he raised.

“Personally, I believe he was talking about China,” Sophal continued.

The Cambodian scholar added that the Mekong region is a strategic gateway for the U.S. in confronting China, environmental sustainability and the rule of law.

The remarks by the American envoy suggest the Mekong region may become a new area for U.S.-China competition.

The world’s two biggest economies are already involved in a trade war and in security confrontations from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea.

The Mekong region “is certainly a potential area of power competition in Southeast Asia apart from the South China Sea,” said Pongphisoot Busbarat, a lecturer on the political science faculty at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University.

China is seeking to use this “backyard” region to project its international leadership through “foreign policy activism.” This is evidenced by investments in infrastructure and dams in the framework of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and its Belt and Road Initiative — drawing suspicion and skepticism from many countries, including the U.S., Busbarat wrote in an email exchange with VOA Khmer.

“Even though China has reiterated its sincerity, and we cannot deny that China’s role contributes and benefits the region in many ways, this policy activism inevitably receives criticisms and suspicion of the real intention,” he added.

The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to request for comments.

China’s Mekong dam project generates growing controversy.

Development concerns

Pou Sothirak, who runs the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), said “inappropriate” and “irresponsible” developments of dams are to blame for higher frequency of drought and floods along the Mekong River.

“These ill-conceived schemes of developments have the potential to cause destructive damages if suitable resolutions are not found satisfactorily,” Pou Sothirak said in a speech last week at the CICP workshop.

From headwaters in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the Mekong River flows 4,300 kilometers across mainland Southeast Asia before draining into the South China Sea. In Chinese, the river is known as the Lancang.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was formed in 1995. All Mekong countries except for China and Myanmar are members with a common goal of better regulating what happens on and to the river.

According the MRC, the river is rich in its biodiversity, providing many of the necessities for the “natural resource-based rural livelihoods of a population of 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin.”

As MRC outsiders, China and Myanmar could evade the commission’s jurisdiction requiring member states to present bids for dam building for studies and negotiation.

Since its creation, the MRC has been criticized for failing to stop dam building along the river.

Mekong River Project, Xayaburi Dam

According to the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, by 2030, there will be as many as 31 hydropower dams built along the Mekong mainstream, many of them in China or funded by Chinese investments.

The Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund has warned that damming the Mekong River would have diverse environmental implications on the fish stocks, wildlife habitats, farmlands, and natural ecosystem of the river, important to food security and traditional livelihoods of the people relying on the river.

Countries in the Mekong Region have been engaged in other international initiatives, including the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation with China and the Lower Mekong Initiative with the U.S.

Sim Vireak, an adviser with the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, said Mekong countries aim to find synergies from cooperation with external partners to benefit the river developments.

“The Mekong countries are mindful that the Mekong platform should not be politicized or become an arena for anti-China, anti-U.S., anti-Japan, anti-Korea, anti-India polarizations,” Sim Vireak said.

Turning the Mekong region into another place where China and the U.S. face off would have “geopolitical consequences reminiscent of the recent past,” he added in reference to Indochina wars of the last century.

Though the U.S. appears to be unwilling to outspend China’s multibillion-dollar injections into the region, the rivalry is here to stay, Sek Sophal said.

“The worst-case scenario is that small states are forced to take sides to survive,” he said in an online conversation with VOA Khmer. “No matter which side they will take, they have to pay the prices.”

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Mekong Region Grows More Important to China-US Relations

Amid increasingly tense China-U.S. relations, a U.S. official alluded to China but did not specifically name China regarding “risks” and “challenges” imposed by approaches to dam building and cross-border riverine practices in the Mekong region.

At a workshop in Phnom Penh by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), the U.S. Embassy’s chargé d’affaires, Michael Newbill, said the actions of “a single nation” in the Mekong region are “worrisome” to both the riverine countries and the U.S.

“In the last two years, shifting geopolitical dynamics have begun to pose major new challenges,” Newbill said.

“We have seen the growth of debt dependency; disproportionate control over dozens of upstream dams by a single nation; plans to blast and dredge riverbeds,” he added in remarks later posted to the U.S. Embassy website.

FILE – A Chinese construction worker stands at the Colombo Port City in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 2, 2018. President Maithripala Sirisena’s government had criticized the previous administration for leading the country into a Chinese debt trap.

The notion of debt dependency, or debt-trap, emerged in 2017. It refers to China’s practice of offering funding for projects that enable Beijing’s access to local resources rather than helping a local economy. Instead, the countries become “vulnerable to China’s influence.”

A senior embassy official, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter, confirmed that Newbill was referring to China when he referenced “a single nation” last week.

The U.S. diplomat went on to say the “risks” of having one country dominate planning for the Mekong region include the erosion of existing governance, the presence of extraterritorial river patrols, trans-boundary crimes, and trafficking of drugs, wildlife and humans.

“All these trends pose risks to the autonomy, economic independence, and water, energy and food security across the Mekong region,” Newbill said.

The Mekong River runs more than 4,300 kilometers through six countries, vital to large populations for farming, fishing, drinking water, industry and power generation.

He added that the region, which includes China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, is “strategically important” to the U.S. given that Washington treaty ally Thailand and increasingly important strategic partner Vietnam are in the region.

The same senior embassy official, who was one of the staffers involved in the preparation of Newbill’s speech, added that the chargé d’affaires also meant China is responsible for all of the risks he mentioned.

‘Potential area of power competition’

Separately, Sek Sophal, a researcher at Japan’s Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies, told VOA Khmer in an email, “Even though he [Newbill] did not name any specific country, it is obvious that China meets all of the points he raised.

“Personally, I believe he was talking about China,” Sophal continued.

The Cambodian scholar added that the Mekong region is a strategic gateway for the U.S. in confronting China, environmental sustainability and the rule of law.

The remarks by the American envoy suggest the Mekong region may become a new area for U.S.-China competition.

The world’s two biggest economies are already involved in a trade war and in security confrontations from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea.

The Mekong region “is certainly a potential area of power competition in Southeast Asia apart from the South China Sea,” said Pongphisoot Busbarat, a lecturer on the political science faculty at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University.

China is seeking to use this “backyard” region to project its international leadership through “foreign policy activism.” This is evidenced by investments in infrastructure and dams in the framework of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and its Belt and Road Initiative — drawing suspicion and skepticism from many countries, including the U.S., Busbarat wrote in an email exchange with VOA Khmer.

“Even though China has reiterated its sincerity, and we cannot deny that China’s role contributes and benefits the region in many ways, this policy activism inevitably receives criticisms and suspicion of the real intention,” he added.

The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to request for comments.

China’s Mekong dam project generates growing controversy.

Development concerns

Pou Sothirak, who runs the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), said “inappropriate” and “irresponsible” developments of dams are to blame for higher frequency of drought and floods along the Mekong River.

“These ill-conceived schemes of developments have the potential to cause destructive damages if suitable resolutions are not found satisfactorily,” Pou Sothirak said in a speech last week at the CICP workshop.

From headwaters in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the Mekong River flows 4,300 kilometers across mainland Southeast Asia before draining into the South China Sea. In Chinese, the river is known as the Lancang.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was formed in 1995. All Mekong countries except for China and Myanmar are members with a common goal of better regulating what happens on and to the river.

According the MRC, the river is rich in its biodiversity, providing many of the necessities for the “natural resource-based rural livelihoods of a population of 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin.”

As MRC outsiders, China and Myanmar could evade the commission’s jurisdiction requiring member states to present bids for dam building for studies and negotiation.

Since its creation, the MRC has been criticized for failing to stop dam building along the river.

Mekong River Project, Xayaburi Dam

According to the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, by 2030, there will be as many as 31 hydropower dams built along the Mekong mainstream, many of them in China or funded by Chinese investments.

The Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund has warned that damming the Mekong River would have diverse environmental implications on the fish stocks, wildlife habitats, farmlands, and natural ecosystem of the river, important to food security and traditional livelihoods of the people relying on the river.

Countries in the Mekong Region have been engaged in other international initiatives, including the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation with China and the Lower Mekong Initiative with the U.S.

Sim Vireak, an adviser with the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, said Mekong countries aim to find synergies from cooperation with external partners to benefit the river developments.

“The Mekong countries are mindful that the Mekong platform should not be politicized or become an arena for anti-China, anti-U.S., anti-Japan, anti-Korea, anti-India polarizations,” Sim Vireak said.

Turning the Mekong region into another place where China and the U.S. face off would have “geopolitical consequences reminiscent of the recent past,” he added in reference to Indochina wars of the last century.

Though the U.S. appears to be unwilling to outspend China’s multibillion-dollar injections into the region, the rivalry is here to stay, Sek Sophal said.

“The worst-case scenario is that small states are forced to take sides to survive,” he said in an online conversation with VOA Khmer. “No matter which side they will take, they have to pay the prices.”

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Kim Jong Un Praises ‘Excellent’ Letter from Trump

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has received a personal letter from U.S. President Donald Trump and is contemplating its contents, North Korean state media reported Sunday.

The official Korean Central News Agency posted a picture of a pensive Kim holding a letter, apparently with White House letterhead. The report quoted Kim as praising its “excellent content.”

“Appreciating the political judging faculty and extraordinary courage of President Trump, Kim Jong Un said that he would seriously contemplate the interesting content,” KCNA reported.

The report did not say anything else about the content of the letter.

Exchanging letters, photos

Trump said earlier this month he received a “beautiful,” “very personal” and “very warm” letter from the North Korean leader.

Though nuclear talks between U.S. and North Korean officials are stalled, Kim and Trump have been exchanging letters and pictures for the past year, and both men say their relationship remains warm.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un meet during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Feb. 28, 2019.

Working-level talks broke down after a February summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended in no deal. Kim was unhappy with the pace of U.S. sanctions relief, while Trump was upset Kim would not commit to completely giving up his nuclear program.

Since then, North Korea has tested several short-range ballistic missiles and other weapons. Kim has said he will give Washington until the end of the year to become more flexible in the talks.

U.S. officials have shrugged off North Korea’s weapons tests and end-of-the-year ultimatum. Trump has said he is willing to hold a third summit with Kim if the conditions are right.

G-20 and beyond

Next week, Trump will visit South Korea following his meetings in Japan at the Group of 20 summit.

There has been speculation, though no evidence, that Trump could try to hold another high-profile summit at that time.

South Korean officials have also said they are working to hold a summit between the leaders of North and South Korea before Trump’s visit.

The letter comes a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a state visit to North Korea, where he promised to play an active role in the nuclear talks. 

“After months of an impasse in the negotiations and little contact between the U. S. and North Korea, it appears there is some diplomatic maneuvering underway,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“[It is] unclear yet whether Xi’s visit to Pyongyang played a role, or whether other factors are at play,” she added.

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Kim Jong Un Praises ‘Excellent’ Letter from Trump

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has received a personal letter from U.S. President Donald Trump and is contemplating its contents, North Korean state media reported Sunday.

The official Korean Central News Agency posted a picture of a pensive Kim holding a letter, apparently with White House letterhead. The report quoted Kim as praising its “excellent content.”

“Appreciating the political judging faculty and extraordinary courage of President Trump, Kim Jong Un said that he would seriously contemplate the interesting content,” KCNA reported.

The report did not say anything else about the content of the letter.

Exchanging letters, photos

Trump said earlier this month he received a “beautiful,” “very personal” and “very warm” letter from the North Korean leader.

Though nuclear talks between U.S. and North Korean officials are stalled, Kim and Trump have been exchanging letters and pictures for the past year, and both men say their relationship remains warm.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un meet during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Feb. 28, 2019.

Working-level talks broke down after a February summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended in no deal. Kim was unhappy with the pace of U.S. sanctions relief, while Trump was upset Kim would not commit to completely giving up his nuclear program.

Since then, North Korea has tested several short-range ballistic missiles and other weapons. Kim has said he will give Washington until the end of the year to become more flexible in the talks.

U.S. officials have shrugged off North Korea’s weapons tests and end-of-the-year ultimatum. Trump has said he is willing to hold a third summit with Kim if the conditions are right.

G-20 and beyond

Next week, Trump will visit South Korea following his meetings in Japan at the Group of 20 summit.

There has been speculation, though no evidence, that Trump could try to hold another high-profile summit at that time.

South Korean officials have also said they are working to hold a summit between the leaders of North and South Korea before Trump’s visit.

The letter comes a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a state visit to North Korea, where he promised to play an active role in the nuclear talks. 

“After months of an impasse in the negotiations and little contact between the U. S. and North Korea, it appears there is some diplomatic maneuvering underway,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“[It is] unclear yet whether Xi’s visit to Pyongyang played a role, or whether other factors are at play,” she added.

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AP Fact Check: The Silent Partner in Trump’s Boasts

President Donald Trump has a silent partner behind several of the accomplishments he likes to boast about: Barack Obama. 

Despite assailing his Democratic predecessor for waging a “cruel and heartless war on American energy,” for example, Trump can brag about U.S. energy supremacy thanks to the sector’s growth in the Obama years. 

And the Obama-Trump decade is soon to yield an economic record if things stay on track a little longer — the most sustained expansion in U.S. history. Though Trump claims all the credit, the expansion started in Obama’s first year, continued through his presidency and has been maintained under Trump. 

There are no fist bumps in the offing, however. 

The past week saw the kickoff of Trump’s 2020 campaign with a rally in Florida. That and other events provided Trump a platform that he used to exaggerate what he’s done, take some factually challenged swipes at Obama and Democrats at large, and make promises that will be hard to keep. Here are samples: 

FILE – U.S. Border Patrol agents keep watch on a large group of migrants who they said were attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, in El Paso, Texas, May 29, 2019.

Migrants 

TRUMP, in interview with Telemundo broadcast Thursday, talking about separating children from adults at the Mexican border: “When I became president, President Obama had a separation policy. I didn’t have it. He had it. I brought the families together. I’m the one that brought `em together. Now, I said something when I did that. I’m the one that put people together. … They separated. I put `em together.” 

JOSE DIAZ-BALART, interviewer: “You did not.” 

THE FACTS: Trump is not telling the truth. The separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents resulted from his “zero tolerance” policy. Obama had no such policy. After a public uproar and under a court order, Trump ceased the separations. 

Zero tolerance meant that U.S. authorities would criminally prosecute all adults caught crossing into the U.S. illegally. Doing so meant detention for adults and the removal of their children while their parents were in custody. During the Obama administration, such family separations were the exception. They became the practice under Trump’s policy, which he suspended a year ago. 

Before Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, migrant families caught illegally entering the U.S. were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, not requiring separation, unless they were known to have a criminal record. Then and now, immigration officials may take a child from a parent in certain cases, such as serious criminal charges against a parent, concerns about the health and welfare of a child or medical concerns. 

TRUMP, in Telemundo interview, talking about detention centers at the border: “President Obama is the one that built those prison cells.” 

THE FACTS: He has a point. Whether they are called prison cells or something else, Obama held children in temporary, ill-equipped facilities and built a large center in McAllen, Texas, that is used now. 

Democrats routinely and inaccurately blame Trump for creating “cages” for children. They are referring to chain-link fencing inside the McAllen center — Obama’s creation. 

Conditions for detained migrants deteriorated sharply during a surge of Central American arrivals under Trump, particularly in El Paso, Texas. 

FILE – Trucks are seen after crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. at the World Trade Bridge, in Laredo, Texas, June 20, 2019.

Trade 

TRUMP, in remarks Thursday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “This will be the largest trade deal ever made, and it won’t even be close.  If you take a look at the numbers, second is so far away, you don’t even call it second.  So it’s very exciting. And very exciting for Mexico; very exciting for Canada.” 

THE FACTS:  That’s wrong, simply by virtue of the number of trade partners involved. 

The proposed new agreement, replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement, covers the same three countries. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated by the Obama administration, included the three NAFTA partners — United States, Canada and Mexico — plus Japan and eight other Pacific Rim countries. Trump withdrew the United States from the pact on his third day in office. 

Even the Pacific deal pales in comparison with one that did go into effect with the U.S. on board, the Uruguay Round. Concluded in 1994, the round of negotiations created the World Trade Organization and was signed by 123 countries. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston said the WTO’s initial membership accounted for more than 90 percent of global economic output. 

TRUMP, on his tariffs, in a rally Tuesday in Orlando, Fla.: “We are taking in billions and billions of dollars into our Treasury. … We have never taken 10 cents from China.” 

THE FACTS: It’s false to say the U.S. never collected a dime in tariffs on Chinese goods before he took action. They are simply higher in some cases than they were before. It’s also wrong to suggest that the tariffs are being paid by China. Tariff money coming into the Treasury is mainly from U.S. businesses and consumers, not from China. Tariffs are primarily if not entirely a tax paid domestically. 

Iran 

TRUMP, in a Friday tweet: “President Obama made a desperate and terrible deal with Iran – Gave them 150 Billion Dollars plus 1.8 Billion Dollars in CASH! Iran was in big trouble and he bailed them out. Gave them a free path to Nuclear Weapons, and SOON. Instead of saying thank you, Iran yelled … Death to America. I terminated deal.” 

TRUMP, on his accomplishments, in Fox News interview Wednesday: “And then terminating one of the worst deals ever made, the Iran deal that was made by President Obama — paid $150 billion. Paid $1.8 billion in cash. I terminated that and Iran is a much different country.”  

THE FACTS: There was no $150 billion payout from the U.S. Treasury. The money he refers to represents Iranian assets held abroad that were frozen until the international deal was reached and Tehran was allowed to access its funds. 

The payout of about $1.8 billion is a separate matter. That dates to the 1970s, when Iran paid the U.S. $400 million for military equipment that was never delivered because the government was overthrown and diplomatic relations ruptured. 

That left people, businesses and governments in each country indebted to partners in the other, and these complex claims took decades to sort out in tribunals and arbitration. For its part, Iran paid settlements of more than $2.5 billion to U.S. citizens and businesses. 

The day after the nuclear deal was implemented, the U.S. and Iran announced they had settled the claim over the 1970s military equipment order, with the U.S. agreeing to pay the $400 million principal along with about $1.3 billion in interest. The $400 million was paid in cash and flown to Tehran on a cargo plane, which gave rise to Trump’s dramatic accounts of money stuffed in barrels or boxes and delivered in the dead of night. The arrangement provided for the interest to be paid later, not crammed into containers. 

FILE – A worker helps monitor water pumping pressure and temperature at an oil and natural gas extraction site in Colorado, March 29, 2013.

Energy 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally: “We’ve ended the last administration’s cruel and heartless war on American energy. What they were doing to our energy should never be forgotten. The United States is now the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.” 

TRUMP, in Fox News interview Wednesday: “We’re now No. 1 in the world in energy.”  

THE FACTS: As he’s done many times before, Trump is crediting himself with things that happened under Obama. 

Here’s what the government’s U.S. Energy Information Administration says: “The United States has been the world’s top producer of natural gas since 2009, when U.S. natural gas production surpassed that of Russia, and the world’s top producer of petroleum hydrocarbons since 2013, when U.S. production exceeded Saudi Arabia’s.” 

Jobs 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally: “Almost 160 million people are working. That’s more than ever before.” 

THE FACTS: True but that’s a tribute to Americans making babies and immigrants coming to the country. Population growth, in other words. 

Other than during recessions, employment growth has been trending upward since 1939, when the Labor Department started counting. The phenomenon is not a marker of leadership; it has spanned successful and failed presidents. 

More on point, the annual rate of job growth has been within the same range since roughly 2011. It was 1.6% through May. 

Another measure is the proportion of Americans with jobs, and that is still below record highs. The Labor Department says 60.6 percent of people in the U.S. 16 years and older were working in May. That’s below the all-time high of 64.7 percent in April 2000 during Bill Clinton’s administration, though higher than the 59.9 percent when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017. 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally: “Women’s unemployment is now the lowest it’s been in 74 years.” 

THE FACTS: No, the jobless rate for women of 3.1% in April was the lowest in 66 years, not 74, and it ticked up in May to 3.2%. 

Economy 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally: “It’s soaring to incredible new heights. Perhaps the greatest economy we’ve had in the history of our country.” 

THE FACTS: The economy is not one of the best in the country’s history. It expanded at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the first quarter of this year. That growth was the highest in just four years for the first quarter. 

In the late 1990s, growth topped 4 percent for four straight years, a level it has not yet reached on an annual basis under Trump. Growth even reached 7.2 percent in 1984. 

The economy grew 2.9% in 2018 — the same pace it reached in 2015 under Obama — and simply hasn’t hit historically high growth rates. 

Trump has legitimate claim to a good economy but when it comes to records, there’s one he will have to share with Obama. The economy is on track to achieve its longest expansion ever, in July. Much of that decade-long growth came during Obama’s presidency, an achievement that Trump so far has largely sustained.  Other than in its durability, the economy is far from the finest in history. 

The wall 

TRUMP, in Fox News interview Wednesday: “We’ll have over 400 miles built by the end of next year.” 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally:  “We’re going to have over 400 miles of wall built by the end of next year. It’s moving very rapidly.” 

THE FACTS: That’s highly unlikely, and even if so, the great majority of the wall he’s talking about would be replacement barrier, not new miles of construction. Trump has added strikingly little length to barriers along the Mexico border despite his pre-eminent 2016 campaign promise to get a wall done. 

Even to reach 400 miles or 640 kilometers, he would have to prevail in legal challenges to his declaration of a national emergency or get Congress to find more money to get anywhere close. 

So far, the administration has awarded contracts for 247 miles (395 km) of wall construction, but that initiative has been constrained by court cases that are still playing out. 

In any event, all but 17 miles (27 km) of his awarded contracts so far would replace existing barriers. 

Taxes 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally:  “We’ve done so much … with the biggest tax cut in history.” 

THE FACTS: His tax cuts are nowhere close to the biggest in U.S. history. 

It’s a $1.5 trillion tax cut over 10 years. As a share of the total economy, a tax cut of that size ranks 12th, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 cut is the biggest, followed by the 1945 rollback of taxes that financed World War II. 

Post-Reagan tax cuts also stand among the historically significant: President George W. Bush’s cuts in the early 2000s and Obama’s renewal of them a decade later. 

Environment 

TRUMP, in Fox News interview Wednesday: “Our water and our air today is cleaner than it ever was. … Our air — it’s the best it ever was.” 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally: “Our air and water are the cleanest they’ve ever been by far.” 

THE FACTS: Not true about air quality, which hasn’t gotten better under the Trump administration. U.S. drinking water is among the best by one leading measure. 

After decades of improvement, progress in air quality has stalled. Over the last two years the U.S. had more polluted air days than just a few years earlier, federal data show. 

There were 15% more days with unhealthy air in America both last year and the year before than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, the four years when America had its fewest number of those days since at least 1980. 

The Obama administration, in fact, set records for the fewest air-polluted days, in 2016. 

On water, Yale University’s global Environmental Performance Index finds 10 countries tied for the cleanest drinking water, the U.S. among them. On environmental quality overall, the U.S. was 27th, behind a variety of European countries, Canada, Japan, Australia and more. Switzerland was No. 1. 

Judges 

TRUMP, on the confirmation of federal judges, at Orlando rally: “President Obama was very nice to us. He didn’t fill the positions.”  

THE FACTS: Trump’s sarcasm aside, he does have a better success rate than Obama in filling judicial vacancies. The Republican-controlled Senate in Obama’s last two years avoided taking action on many of his nominees. Republicans still control the Senate and have been able to confirm about 120 of Trump’s picks despite their slim majority. That’s about 35 more than Obama had confirmed at this point in his presidency. 

Health care 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally: “We will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions. Always.” 

THE FACTS: His administration’s actions say otherwise. It is pressing in court for full repeal of Obama’s health law, which requires insurers to take all applicants, regardless of medical history, and charge the same standard premiums to healthy people and those who had medical problems before or when they signed up. 

Trump and other Republicans say they’ll have a plan to preserve protections for people with pre-existing conditions, but the White House has provided no details. 

FILE – Abortion rights activists protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court, during the March for Life in Washington, Jan. 18, 2019.

Abortion 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally: “Leading Democrats have even opposed measures to prevent the execution of children after birth.” 

THE FACTS: Executing children is already a crime. 

Trump is offering here a somewhat toned down version of a distorted story he’s been telling for months that falsely suggests Democrats are OK with murder. 

His account arises from extremely rare instances when babies are born alive as a result of an attempted abortion. When these cases occur, “execution” is not an option. 

When a baby is born with anomalies so severe that he or she would die soon after birth, a family may choose what’s known as palliative care or comfort care. This might involve allowing the baby to die naturally without medical intervention. Providing comfort without life-extending treatment is not specific to newborns. It may happen with fatally ill patients of any age. 

Veterans 

TRUMP, at Orlando rally: “We passed VA Choice. …They’ve been trying to get that passed also for about 44 years.” 

THE FACTS: No, Congress approved the private-sector Veterans Choice health program in 2014 and Obama signed it into law. Trump signed an expansion of it. 

Russia investigation 

TRUMP, on Fox News interview Wednesday: “I’m the most transparent president in history. I let Mueller have everything they wanted.” 

THE FACTS: It’s highly questionable to say Trump was fully cooperative in the Russia investigation. 

Trump declined to sit for an interview with Robert Mueller’s team, gave written answers that investigators described as “inadequate” and “incomplete,” said more than 30 times that he could not remember something he was asked about in writing, and — according to the report — tried to get aides to fire the special counsel or otherwise shut or limit the inquiry. 

In the end, the Mueller report found insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia but left open the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. 

According to the report, Mueller’s team declined to make a prosecutorial judgment on whether to charge partly because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents cannot be indicted. The report instead factually laid out instances in which Trump might have obstructed justice, specifically leaving it open for Congress to take up the matter. 

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