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Ambassador to Laos, The Honorable Rena Bitter visits the PacNW and Discusses Building Bridges

Former President, Barack Obama’s presidency was full of historical firsts. Everyone knows about the larger scale accomplishments, but only a small country like Laos, and its people around the world, would even care enough to know about the smaller stuff. I’m talking, of course, about the historical visits to Laos from Secretary Hillary Clinton to said President himself, a couple of years ago. While the homeland can only view it positively – the Lao diaspora ran the gamut of emotions. Not unexpected, considering it’s been a little over 40 years since the diaspora began. While some of us have made it back home for a visit, the disappearance of Sombath Somphone raises the dormant alarms we never quite forgot. It’s as if we were lulled into a semi-safe space by a lethargic dance-off only to have the Bogeyman reappear after we washed our makeup off. Regardless, with 40 years of time passing, the doors to some kind of positive relationship appear to at least be open.

I couldn’t say if that is an insanely long amount of time or too little. I can posit, though, that after an entire country changed political regime in 1975, resulting in around 10% of its people fleeing and creating the diaspora we’re a part of, a rebuilding had to take place on both sides. Considering this, it’s not surprising to say that it would take a few generations to heal wounds. Maybe that’s why no real prior attempt has been made. Perhaps the administrations that came before just didn’t see the value. After several deductions, I’ll conclude that it’s a broad mix of all these things, coupled with some nuances common folk might not be privy to. Anyhow, a strong partnership and understanding should yield better, more effective results than the current stagnant relationship.

So, on the morning of May 1, the Honorable Rena Bitter, US Ambassador to Laos, visited the Pacific Northwest for a panel discussion on “ASEAN, Maritime Security, Trade, and the Trump Administration.” Included in the panel were a few of her counterparts: US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies, US Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph R. Donovan, US Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel J. Kritenbrink. The President/CEO for US-ASEAN Business Council Alexander C. Feldman was also in attendance. The panel discussion took place at the University of Washington’s Walker Ames Room at Kane Hall. It was free and open to the public. Considering the breadth and scope of topics, distinguished panelists, and amount of attendees–it seemed like a very limited amount of time allotted. That, of course, is good news for traditionalists: it maintains and reinforces the habitual “not enough time” with every panel discussion I’ve ever attended or been a part of. The situation doesn’t need to devolve into a broad blanket of bad comedic timing though, afterall, there’s the Moderator, the appointed dancer-on-command to turn to. Unfortunately, the really good ones are like searching for the elusive Fawkes feather. Or the single grain of rice that is Mulan.

The event managed to do a short dive into challenges faced–mostly of the economic kind. ASEAN is the 11th largest trade partner for the US. The 10 countries of ASEAN (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) represent the 4th largest goods export market for the US. It is also the top destination for U.S. foreign direct investment in Asia. Trade with ASEAN supports almost 550,000 American jobs. There is no doubt that China has been investing heavily into Laos, from rail projects to casinos to other kinds of infrastructure and businesses. If Laos isn’t currently worried about their dependence on yet, another large country, they should revisit the recent past.

The event was sponsored by:

US-ASEAN Business Council, Inc
Southeast Asia Center
Jackson School of International Studies
Global Business Center, Foster School of Business

While the panel engagement was one of her marquee events, she also managed to meet with some local community leaders, as well, during this, the annual US Ambassadors’ Tour. The extended hand did not go unnoticed and unappreciated. Project Director for the Asian American, Native American Pacific Islander, Serving Institution (AANAPISI) at Highline College and a Commissioner for CAPAA, Ekkarath Sisavatdy noted it was a great step towards introducing any kind of positive relationship with Laos and her diaspora. Other noted community leaders in attendance were: Olivia Louie, representing the Pom Foundation and Kinnaly Music and Dance Troupe, Sakuna Thongchanh, representing Legacies of War, Kayla Somvilay, Phon Khampradith, and Khamph Southisombath representing the Lao Community Service Center of Washington (LCSC), Saysomphorn Sisavatdy, representing Little Laos on the Prairie, as well as a few other notable attendees. The topic broached by Ambassador Bitter, at both the panel discussion and at this meeting, was aimed at building bridges and positive relations with Laos, and her diaspora. There does seem to be an inordinate amount of misconceptions from both sides. Nothing like 40 years of playing a lethal game that’s equal parts: Telephone, Operation, Monopoly, Duck Hunt, and Clue; where every player speaks a different language and carries a medical secret for a twist that they can’t pay for.

Yes, America is the country that held a Secret War in Laos and left an incalculable mass of unexploded ordnances there to surprise anyone unlucky enough to step in the wrong place; not to mention the total lack of a responsible retreat protocol when they left the neutral country abruptly to fend for itself, but–most of the diaspora was not privy to this kind of information back then. We forget about the amazing technology we’ve been given and the education we received that lead to us knowing how to use it, on top of its insane user-friendly packaging and availability. Besides, folks were too busy dodging a new regime’s bullets and spies and camps to do proper research on some of the other details. And those are the folks that might have had a formal education beyond elementary school. Dropped into foreign soil the word “survive without colonizing” takes on new meaning. So it’s easy to point at the older generation and say they were too into their politics and/or this or that. The simple answer is probably what rings most true, in this case: they had hope they’d still live to see the day they’d get to go back home again, so why bother with citizenship or anything too elaborate? The country accepted them. No one ever told them it wasn’t for forever. Not after all the horrors they escaped already. And now? Well, it’s been so long–how do you dredge up the proper amount of anger to a country that also, ultimately gave you your new home?

The Lao people that fled during those tumultuous times, aka the diaspora, were made up of: some commoners seeking a better life, ethnic groups that were facing genocide, military families (of these, there seem to be a whole lot), and just a handful can lay claim to being a part of the actual ruling class of politicians (of these–there are not many, especially living), and wealthy or well-connected families. Politicians, the ruling class, political dissidents, educators, and the learned are usually the first rounded up. History has taught us this, over and over again. From what I’ve been able to research–a lot of the military families here have the history they’ve been told and taught. Stories passed down the way we’ve done for centuries, by word of mouth. Even before the war, not every native Lao could read/write Laos. So, even if they could beyond an elementary level, the fresh new Lao Americans had enough on their hands learning English and American customs. There are only a couple of tomes not destroyed by a new regime we’d even trust. All incomplete. The military is only one part of a country’s politics and it isn’t even the decision-making hand. So even the history presented there takes leaps and liberties. The history we’re in most need of lies with the politicians and educators. Mostly corpses of the past or relics we don’t pay attention to. So, most of the diaspora are still unaware about actual details of the war. And now? Even harder to obtain.

Why does all this matter?

She was first sworn in as the new Ambassador to Laos, during President Obama’s last year in office. At the time, the Lao American diaspora held its breath, though no one stopped going about their lives. Many of the old guard are gone. Some folks that used to hold their breaths at the changing of the guards have since stopped paying attention. Others read the news dispassionately; their expectations having been jaded long ago. Quite a few, whether they ever gained citizenship or not, have actively embraced America as their home. Many think ill of the current Lao government because that’s what they were taught by previous generations, history, you know: why you’re homeless in a foreign land type stuff. Besides, when your childhood is filled with horror stories of how siblings turned on one another and how your parents were abused–it certainly does not give you a good feeling about the folks that did it. Regardless, even more don’t seem to care one way or another. The multitude of responses isn’t unexpected. There have been many ambassadors that have come and gone during the diaspora. In the beginning, one can imagine there’d be no desire to reach out on either end to connect and build bridges together. As time went by, maybe one side entertained thoughts on partnership and the other side did not and vice versa (I can’t speak for history and the folks that came before me).

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the diaspora have done nothing but WANT to help the country it fled. Folks who return home bring back trunks and trunks of goods to their families and former villages while, back in the reality that is America, working like age will somehow rewind for them later: when they’ve got time to just catch the next sturgeon or tend to the hom pom and mak len. It won’t. Further, it feeds a pretty insane picture of what one can afford in America working at blue collar jobs. The younger generation have since founded NGO’s to help provide assistance on a larger scale. They’re also the folks who have tried to rebuild a scattered community in sometimes hostile territory and it does seem that they’ve found some way to successfully work with the homeland. For now, it seems only NGO’s have really seen anything resembling success – but who throws away free charity? Not many. (Especially not ones that are taking out huge loans from other governments. Or ones building multiple damaging dams to sell power to other countries while displacing their own people…and their people’s dependence and livelihood on that body of water. Not to mention the biodiversity there. The problem with NGO’s for a country that wants and needs to grow its economy is: well, that explains it already, right? The diaspora has never stopped yearning for Laos. Every new worldly knowledge gained, education received, and money obtained is tied to dreams of helping the people left behind, and the country being devoured by time.

How much of an impact can the diaspora have to Laos’ economy if we weren’t just visitors, but active citizens creating businesses and jobs and opportunity with all the education and experience we’ve gained since being gone? Does Laos need its diaspora to grow fast enough to catch up with the rest of the world and her neighbors? If this is an actual possibility, what will it take to ensure a positive outcome and a healthy relationship? Can Laos even grow with its dependence on so many investing nations? Maybe that’s the point. The diaspora would certainly give it a different option…but…

How do you bridge the gap between the diaspora and the country left behind? The reality is, it might not even be that difficult. That is, if the government of Laos really is ready to open its arms to the families of the former government’s military and what remains of its political regime. Not to mention open up its more stringent and conservative laws–we’re Lao Americans over here and we’ve come to expect certain unalienable rights.

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