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After 60 years of US-Laos diplomatic relations, what’s next?

Did you get the memo? Blue is in this season. Aside from the great color coordination, the presidential couples of both US and Laos was all smiles this week as they met to celebrate US-Laos diplomatic relations.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and Laos President Choummaly Sayasone and Madame Keosaychay Sayasone in New York City, 2015 (Photo: US Embassy Vientiane)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and Laos President Choummaly Sayasone and Madame Keosaychay Sayasone in New York City, 2015 (Photo: US Embassy Vientiane)

Historical relationship in a nutshell

They’ve been friends a long time. Following Laos’ independence from France and its break from Indochina in 1954, the US established full diplomatic relations with Laos from 1955 until 1964, assisting Laos in its civil war during the Vietnam era. Then minimizing representation in Laos through the 70s. Full US-Lao diplomatic relations was restored in 1992. Then 2012 marked a visit to Laos by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; the first by a Secretary of State since 1955.

Post-war and economic ties

There hasn’t been much economic investment in Laos and the presence of US companies are still missing, with only the few such as Coca-Cola and Ford maintaining base there. The US embassy in Vientiane expanded its focus from searching missing American military members in Laos and UXO clearance to more complex public policy issues such as counter narcotics, health, child nutrition, environmental sustainability, trade relations, English language training, and even implementing a platform in its Lower Mekong Initiative, which focused on sustainability changes in the Southeast Asian region.

As Laos was granted membership into the WTO and now its rightful place in ASEAN, its economic viability will depend on how the vulnerable country will meet those key membership requirements and standards to stake its place in the market economy. In the latest UNDP report published this month, Laos has almost met all of its Millennium Development Goals in poverty and hunger reduction. This comes at the high expense of the livelihoods of its people and the harmful practices against its natural resources. There are still areas of necessary improvements, and the increasing disparities between the rich and poor cannot be ignored.

Looking Forward

Let’s shift to the dialog, US. At the heels of the anniversary of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, 60 years is a long time. This relationship needs to be taken to the next level of what will be the defining moment between the countries in what international diplomacy truly means.

As 2015 comes to a close and the 2016 US presidential election will dominate the conversation in the upcoming year, what will this relationship look like in the years ahead ? Will we see more cooperation for a true robust trade process? Will the next US administration lead the way towards peaceful legacies? Will both countries pave the path towards realizing the human rights of its people? Laos may be eyeing the international stage, but the public veil exists. Let’s shift the conversation not only to the strengths Laos has but the weaknesses that plague its development. It’s issues like migrants, women and youth being trafficked, the poor still left stagnate in rural areas, and the families of those disappeared still waiting for answers. Only when these issues are the focal point for a conversation with Laos, will we see what the potential is for this crucial relationship to thrive.

At the end of the day, I hope fashion and food weren’t the only topics at the cozy meeting. If diplomacy is at the heart of the deal, then steps towards transparency and accountability for both countries will only shape this relationship to a more meaningful future together. Until then, no one should be busting open the Lao-Lao whiskey at the party.

-Chanida Phaengdara Potter, 

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