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[smh.com.au] – Security tight ahead of summit

http://www.smh.com.au/news/World/Security-tight-ahead-of-summit/2004/11/28/1101577342324.html

Security tight ahead of summit
November 28, 2004 – 3:39PM

Australia spent $42 million building the Friendship Bridge between Laos and Thailand. Just don’t try looking at it.

Amid unprecedented security for a meeting of regional leaders tomorrow, jittery security guards and police detained two journalists attempting to look over the pride of Australian aid in Asia.

The 1.2 kilometre bridge across the Mekong River was opened with much fanfare by then prime minister Paul Keating and his Lao and Thai counterparts in 1994.

Located on the outskirts of Vientiane, the span is described by Australian officials as “a potent symbol of Australian commitment to Laos and its integration with other economies”.

But following threats by ethnic minority Hmong guerrillas to disrupt the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN) leaders summit in Laos tomorrow, Lao security officials seemed to abandon their Government’s commitment to welcome overseas visitors.

After one official directed the journalists – one from AAP and another from The Australian Financial Review – along a track beside the bridge to a point presumably overlooking the bridge to take a photo, a group of three armed police and several plain-clothed security officers suddenly descended.

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AdvertisementBoth journalists were placed on the back of police motorbikes and taken to a security and immigration interrogation office while passports were confiscated for “checking”.

Several security officials then explained “it is not possible to photograph the bridge”.

After a lengthy delay, police shunted both correspondents out a side door when a mysterious official bearing both ASEAN media and security passes arrived to intervene.

The incident helps explain why ordinary Lao people do not seem to share their Government’s enthusiasm for the first ASEAN leader’s summit to which Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard, has been invited.

One of the world’s last communist bastions, Laos has ordered its own people off the streets in an Orwellian bid to paint the capital in the best possible light, clean and free of the traffic problems which plague other Asian capitals.

Taxis have been banished from the leafy streets and offices shut down, while restaurants have either closed for the duration of the summit or reduced their opening hours.

“It makes it very hard for us to make money. The Government says we cannot go into the city,” motorised tricycle driver Sisay told AAP.

“It will be better when [ASEAN] is over and we can make some money again.”

Even traffic across the Friendship Bridge – which Australia says has had an important impact on Lao economic development – has slowed to a crawl amid the lockdown.

The Vientiane Times newspaper said hardly anyone was bothering to cross the Friendship Bridge in the leadup to the summit.

Given Lao security for the meeting, it’s best not to try and check it out.

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