U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday praised young Southeast Asian leaders participating in an American government education program during a town-hall meeting in Laos and introduced three new initiatives to benefit youth in the region.

Obama met with about 400 young people, including more than 100 from Laos, who are involved in the U.S. government's Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) program.

Founded in December 2013, the program aims to build the leadership abilities of youth in Southeast Asia, strengthen ties between the U.S. and the region, and promote cross-border cooperation to solve regional and global issues through educational and cultural exchanges, hands-on training, regional exchanges, and seed funding.

Operating under the auspices of the U.S. mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the program focuses on critical issues identified by Southeast Asia youth, including civic engagement, environment and natural resources management, entrepreneurship, and economic development.

Our goal is to empower young people with skills and resources, and the networks that you need to turn your ideas into action, and to become the next generation of leaders in civil society and in business and in government, said Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.

The young people at the meeting, who ranged from 18 to 35 years of age, hail from ASEAN's 10 member countries´┐ŻBrunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The town meeting was held during a YSEALI Summit they were attending at Souphanouvong University in the northern town of Luang Prabang.

[B]ecause your generation is the most educated, and because you are all connected through your phones, you have more power to shape the future than any generation that we've ever known, Obama said. That's why I've made connecting our young people a cornerstone of American foreign policy.

Network of 100,000

Obama said the program now has a network of 100,000 young people from all 10 ASEAN countries.

Approximately 65 percent of people who live in the ASEAN region are under the age of 35.

[I] know that closing the development gap in innovative and in impactful ways is what you're focused on at this YSEALI Summit in Laos, he said.

And that's wonderful, because whatever sector we work in, we all have a role to play when it comes to things like educating our people, lifting communities up from poverty, and protecting the environment for future generations, Obama said.

For those who live in a secretive, communist country such as Laos, participating in a town-hall meeting with a national leader and being able to ask him questions is an anomaly.

A university student named Sounthorn, who attended the town-hall meeting, told RFA's Laos Service he was happy that Obama had visited an undeveloped country and called his speech inspirational.

President Obama said the most important factor in development is human resources, he said.

An English teacher at Souphanouvong University who was present during the town-hall meeting told RFA's Laos Service that one of the main messages coming from the YSEALI program was that young people must first develop themselves in order to contribute to the development of their country.

The content he brought up in his speech has many important points that can be used as lessons for all of us to learn from, he said. What he said can inspire us in our hearts. It can lead to the development and unity of all people.

Other new initiatives

Obama also announced the start of related initiatives, including a program called English for All which will deploy more language teachers in Southeast Asian countries and bring Southeast Asian educators to the United States for training.

[A]t a time when English is the language of business, science, and the networked world, it's very important that young people have English language training, he said.

Operating under the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the initiative will offer opportunities and resources to help anyone in the world learn English via the new website EnglishForAll.State.gov, he said.

Obama also said the U.S. government has expanded its Let Girls Learn program to include Laos and Nepal to ensure that every girl receives a quality education.

In too many countries now, women and girls are not getting the same educational opportunities as men and boys, he said. And research shows that when girls get an education, not only do they grow up healthier, but her children will grow up healthier also. Not only will she become more prosperous, but her community will become more prosperous.

The U.S. president also announced the start of the U.S.-ASEAN Women's Leadership Academy for YSEALI which will offer leadership training and mentoring for emerging women leaders from all 10 ASEAN countries on an annual basis.

And because we've partnered with several multinational companies to sponsor this academy, we're going to be able to empower women to take their place in society for decades to come, he said.

Human rights issues

Obama, who is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos, is in the country to attend an ASEAN summit in the capital Vientiane.

On Tuesday, he said the U.S. has a moral obligation to clean up millions of unexploded bombs it dropped on Laos for nine years during the Vietnam War to stop supplies flowing to communist fighters.

To achieve this, the U.S. would double its spending on ordnance cleanup in Laos to roughly U.S. $90 million over the next three years, he said.

Rights groups have meanwhile called on Obama to address Laos' dismal record on human rights and the unresolved disappearance of U.S.-educated development specialist Sombath Samphone who was taken away by security forces at a road checkpoint on Dec. 15, 2012, and hasn't been heard from since.

Lao authorities have made no arrests in the case, and there is little indication a serious investigation ever took place.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes is scheduled to meet with Sombath's wife Shui Meng Ng on Thursday while Obama is still in the country.

President Obama and world leaders gathering in Laos need to demand answers and accountability from their Lao government hosts on the case of disappeared NGO leader Sombath Somphone, said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

The message has to be clear that the cover up has to end, Sombath needs to be found, and that no other outcome is acceptable, he said.

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