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Obama Visits Laos; Cancels Bilateral Meeting With Philippine President

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president of the United States is in Laos this morning. That's a sentence no one has ever been able to say before. President Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to go there. It is a landlocked nation next to Vietnam. In fact, the United States bombed it during the Vietnam War, bombed it a lot.

Today, Laos is the host nation for a summit of leaders of Southeast Asian Nations. And President Obama has come along. NPR's Elise Hu is with the president, joins us now.

Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the president been doing?

HU: Well, he is strengthening ties with Laos. This is a tiny communist nation where America has a difficult history. This is the most bombed country per capita on earth. And President Obama today announced a doubling of the aid package going to help clear unexploded bombs in Laos. And in terms of relations with the Lao people, that's going pretty well. It's a real rainy and wet day here in Vientiane, the capital. But it didn't stop more than a thousand people from lining up to see President Obama give a speech at the National Cultural Hall.

It's a beautiful hall - intricate golden doors. And it was actually built by the Chinese, Steve, as a gift to the Lao in the 1990s. The Obama administration has been rebalancing to Asia as part of its policy. That's largely seen as a counterweight to China. So it's interesting. Obama spoke to the Lao people about a stronger American partnership with Laos in a building gifted to them by the Chinese. Here's a little bit of what he had to say.

(SOUNBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States is more deeply engaged across the Asia-Pacific than we have been in decades. Our position is stronger. And we've sent a clear message that as a Pacific nation, we're here to stay. In good times and bad, you can count on the United States of America. And the question going forward is, what will the future hold for this region? Will disagreements be resolved peacefully or lead to conflict? Will economies continue to integrate or succumb to mercantilism or protectionism? Will human dignity be upheld, or will it be denied?

INSKEEP: That's President Obama speaking in Laos. Now, he mentioned human dignity. Elise Hu, let's bring up a story that involves human dignity, not to mention human life. The White House was expecting to meet with the president of the Philippines, which is a country that's also part of this Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But I guess they're not meeting.

HU: Yeah, they scrapped the meeting after the president of the Philippines, the newly elected president, Rodrigo Duterte, used a slur to threaten President Obama. He was just elected a few months ago in a wave of populist fervor and on a promise to clean up drugs in the country.

So since his inauguration on June 30, more than 2,000 Filipinos have been rounded up and killed without due process. In several cases, the people who have been victims here have just had the misfortune of being nearby, like a 5-year-old who was killed. The White House said, heading into a possible meeting, that Obama would definitely bring up the human rights abuses inherent in extrajudicial killings. And Rodrigo Duterte gave a press conference essentially lashing out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRES RODRIGO DUTERTE: I do not have any master except the Filipino people - nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. (Speaking Tagalog).

HU: And what he said there in his native language of Tagalog is an obscenity about Obama's mother, followed by a quote; "I will swear at you in front of everybody," a warning to President Obama that if he brought up these killings at their meeting, that's what would happen.

INSKEEP: And we heard on the program yesterday President Obama's initial reaction to that during a news conference, saying, well, if we can't have a productive meeting, maybe we shouldn't meet. That's a paraphrase. I guess they decided not to meet in the end.

HU: That's right. Right after Obama and the White House staff arrived here in Laos early Tuesday morning, the White House said the meeting was canceled. It did not elaborate.

But we should mention that President Duterte of the Philippines just a few hours ago issued a statement expressing regret that his words came out like a personal attack. And both sides said they will meet at a later date.

INSKEEP: Elise Hu in Laos, how is the presidential election here in the United States affecting what people talk about on the president's trip?

HU: Well, there's no obvious evidence that Obama is fading into irrelevance in these global settings. There is some nostalgia at these international summits, a lot of global leaders recognizing that this is sort of the last big international forum for President Obama. They got up and gave standing ovations to him before they left the G20.

And the fact that Obama and his Russian counterpart, Putin, were continuing to engage on Syria over this weekend is actually some evidence that there's still work being done when it comes to foreign policy.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elise Hu is in Vientiane, which is the capital of Laos. Elise, thanks very much.

HU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.