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What Obama’s Vientiane Speech Tells Us About US-Laos Relations

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OP-ED: When Air Force One touched down at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Laos. A day later, he gave a speech at the National Cultural Hall. The consequences of that elegant speech, covered by an army of local and international media, was two-fold. Firstly, it thrust the little landlocked country into the international spotlight and revealed a history and legacy that have plagued relations between Laos and America for as long as the media can remember. And secondly, it was the closest semblance of an apology that a major superpower could offer for something it had done nearly half a century ago.

During the Vietnam Conflict, the U.S. waged a “secret war” on Laos by dropping nearly 3 million tons of cluster munitions in an attempt to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, earning Laos the infamous title of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Some of these unexploded bombs still contaminate Laos in the places where people farm and children walk to school. His speech to nearly 1,100 attendees was given in the “spirit of reconciliation” and with a strong nod to the future. In keeping with this spirit, he pledged a total of $90 million to the finding and dismantling of these bombs.

During this major historical event for Laos and the United States, many around the world are curious about Laos. Several media outlets have stated that Laos is regarded as having one of the most secretive governments in the world. In effect, this visit by President Obama put a poor, landlocked Southeast Asian country at the center of the world’s attention.

It may seem shocking to observers around the world that the United States would make such strident efforts at reconciliation and collaboration. These efforts seem even more remarkable in light of the almost diametrically opposing natures of both countries’ governments. However, an examination of the protracted Vietnam Conflict and Laos’ potential as a major player in South East Asian trade may inform the recent interactions of the U.S. and Laos.

By most measure, US-Laos diplomatic relations are currently in the preliminary stages. After all, Laos just came into its own as an independent sovereign nation in the mid-1950’s. Immediately before that, the Kingdom of Lan Xang was held as a protectorate as part of France’s Indochina. After its first election in 1955, Laos become a constitutional monarchy. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic was then proclaimed in 1975. Today, it is one of the five remaining outposts of modern communism. The main religion of the Lao PDR is Theravadan Buddhism.

The recent pledge of $90 million stands as a milestone when compared to previous commitments of financial assistance from the United States. The total U.S. foreign assistance to Laos tallies in at roughly $4.3 million for FY2006, $4.8 million for FY2007, and $4.9 million for FY2009.

Just a decade after being minted as a newly independent nation, Laos was subject to intense aerial bombings when the U.S. focused on disrupting a primary war supply conduit of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In his speech, Laos was acknowledged as the most bombed country in history. Between 1964 and 1973, nearly 3 million tons of munitions were dropped on Laos. The United States was never officially at war with Laos, and Laos was officially neutral throughout the entire Vietnam War. In addition to being the target of these bombs that “fell like rain” during the Secret War, Laos was also experiencing a civil war in those years.

President Obama’s speech made several references to the nature of Lao people—a people that are strong and resilient. It is true that those of us that fled remain proud of our Lao heritage and our story of survival and perseverance—survival of the journey to America from Laos and perseverance in building new lives in a foreign land. My own mother was pregnant with me through part of my family’s journey.

As a people steeped in the Buddhist tradition of living in the present, many Lao-Americans are opening to embracing the ideas of kindness, compassion and honesty. On the morning of the president’s speech, many of us woke up bursting with pride and hope for what the future holds for Laos–content to forge new relationships to repair the past and take our place in the global economy. This sentiment was effectively sealed through the Joint Declaration between the United States and the Lao PDR signed by President Barack Obama and President Bounnhang Vorachit. However, the beginning steps of this new era can be traced back to U.S.-Laos relations throughout the Obama Administration.

In the area of trade, almost all trade restrictions were lifted during the Obama Administration. Previously in 2004 and 2005, Congress extended nondiscriminatory treatment to the products of Laos, normal trade relations were extended to Laos; two countries also agreed to a Bilateral Trade Agreement. In June 2009, all prohibitions on U.S. Export-Import Bank financing for U.S. companies seeking to do business in Laos were removed. This final trade obstacle paved the way for many U.S. companies to make capital investments. Perhaps, even more companies like Microsoft and General Electric will turn their attention to Laos.

On the human rights front, the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended the designation of “country of particular concern” between the years of 2000 to 2003. The Lao Government and U.S. Embassy Vientiane conducted a joint seminar on religious freedom. In 2005, the USCIRF removed Lao PDR from its “watch list”. In May 2009, then Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh signed Decree 92 guaranteeing religious freedom, albeit under the watchful eye of government officials. In recent history, the Lao National Assembly has also enacted laws allowing private ownership of Lao media outlets.

President Obama’s speech was forward-looking in nature and did not ignore the need to educate and prepare Laotian youths for the future. In addition to pledging $90 million for the removal of UXO’s, he also stated his commitment to educating and professionally training the younger generations of Laos in an effort to foster entrepreneurial growth. One example of this is the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative announced in late 2014 when President Obama was visiting Burma. The program is aimed at developing young leaders of ASEAN countries through economic empowerment and civic engagement. Another program is Let Girls Learn, which will be available to the girls of Laos and Nepal.

Lastly, another major present-day US-Lao collaboration is the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), of which the U.S., Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are members. The LMI is an effort dedicated to the development of sustainable management of the Lower Mekong River Basin. Any discussion of the harnessing of the power of the lower Mekong River Basin cannot occur devoid of consideration of the industrial activities of the Upper Mekong River Basin, located in China and Myanmar. Far-reaching, complex environmental and socio-economic issues surround rapid hydropower development in the region; the construction of approximately one dozen were in the works in 2009. Therefore, the collaboration and honesty among nations is critical to strike a delicate balance between economic development, energy security and preservation of the biota that support the livelihoods of the nearly 60 million inhabitants of the lower Mekong River Basin.

While Laos took center stage last week in the context of relations with the U.S, it should be duly noted that Lao leaders have also taken many proactive steps in this direction on the international trade front. In 1997, Laos joined ASEAN—Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Laos was the chair of this year’s ASEAN Summit, which took place on September 5, 2016; President Obama was in attendance. It is now also a member of ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA), International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and the World Bank.

The sentiment among many Lao can be characterized as pride and validation in the words spoken by President Obama at the National Cultural Hall. As Mr. Obama stated, forty years ago, this visit would have been thought “unimaginable.” The world watched as President Obama lauded aspects of the Buddhist faith, yearned for a Beerlao, citing the legend of Sinxay, listened to the victims of UXO’s, attempted to pronounce Lao words, sipped on fresh coconut juice, and paid his respects to the monks in Luang Prabang. I am sure that all Lao people, both in the Lao PDR and the United States, are delighted to see how the charm of the Land of the Million Elephants has won the heart of the American President from the fabled land of the United States. Undoubtedly, this will pave the way for a new era of US-Laos relations, one in which will hopefully yield increased UXO aid, increased investment from American companies in Laos, and higher engagement between all Lao peoples from both countries. Obama’s visit is the most affirming event that both countries will ever get to putting the past behind us.

Finally, as an American, I would be remiss not to bring light to the intergenerational effects that fleeing the secret war had on the people that chose to flee and their children through my own lens. Most of our elders chose to never speak of their lives back in the old country. But this seemingly concerted decision perpetuated a mindset of being content with seeking just the basics – housing, food, transportation. As a young and ambitious woman coming of age, my views and life goals often clashed with the desires of my parents, leading to strained familial relations. But on the day that Laos took center stage in the world, my 77-year old father spoke for the first time about how he lived dodging the UXO’s and dragging them to water for potential explosion away from where people traveled by foot. In that moment, I was able to extend the humanity, compassion and forgiveness that I have regretfully withheld from him and my deceased mother for the heroic feat of raising the four of us the best way they knew how.

Written by: Mingah Soulinthong