Laos, US in highest contact since Vietnam War

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (right) and Laos Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in Washington, DC

WASHINGTON — The United States and Laos pledged to step up cooperation after their highest-level talks since the Vietnam War, the latest country in a renewed US effort to engage Southeast Asia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Tuesday with Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, who was paying the first visit by a top Laotian official to Washington since the communist victory in his nation in 1975.

Laotian students pass a sign warning that mines are located in the area in the northern province of Xiangkhoang

They pledged to step up exchanges, saying in a joint statement that cooperation is "producing mutual benefits and a constructive relationship contributing to peace, stability and cooperation for development in the region and the world."

In a practical sign of ties, the two countries signed an "open-skies" agreement allowing access to each other's airlines, which officials said may give a small boost to tourism in isolated and landlocked Laos.

US relations with Laos, while never severed, were long tense, in part over its campaign against the Hmong hill people who assisted US forces during the Vietnam War along with uncertainties over American troops missing in action.

A Hmong refugee cries as Thai authorities deport to Laos thousands of the ethnic group in late December, 2009

But the United States established normal trade ties with Laos in 2004 and has recently looked at ways to help clean up ordnance that continues to take a heavy civilian toll.

US forces dropped millions of bombs on the country to cut off North Vietnam supply lines, which according to a survey earlier this year have killed or injured some 50,000 people in Laos.

Philip Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said that Clinton and Thongloun discussed "a wide range of old and new areas for bilateral cooperation."

"The United States is committed to building our relationship with Laos as part of our broader efforts to expand engagement with Southeast Asia," Crowley told reporters.

Another US official said that talks also touched on "fighting drug addiction and illegal drug trafficking and US government concerns for the welfare of Hmong" who were controversially returned from Thailand in December.

President Barack Obama's administration has put a new focus on Southeast Asia, saying the region was overlooked as George W. Bush's former administration became preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Obama administration last year initiated a dialogue with another isolated state in Southeast Asia -- Myanmar, also known as Burma, whose military regime has curtailed the rights of the democratic opposition.

Ernie Bower, who heads the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, saw the talks with Laos as a new example of the US effort to "really try to broaden and deepen engagement with all the ASEAN countries."

As for Laos, "they know there are interest groups in the United States who are out to pressure them on issues they just don't want to talk about, like the Hmong," Bower said.

"The Lao were a little nervous about taking the diplomatic risks of reaching out their hand, but now they are starting to see a little return," he said, pointing to growing US business in Laos since restrictions were lifted.

Laotian students pass a sign warning that mines are located in the area in the northern province of Xiangkhoang

Some 250,000 Hmong have resettled in the United States and often speak of persecution in Laos, enlisting support of US lawmakers to pressure the Vientiane government.

China has meanwhile been seeking to improve relations with Laos, with China's Vice President and heir apparent Xi Jinping visiting last month.

Beijing has also pledged to invest in Laotian infrastructure, which would help transport Chinese goods to key regional hub Thailand.

In the joint statement, Thongloun said he invited Clinton to visit Laos.

The only secretary of state to visit Laos was John Foster Dulles, who spent a day in the then-monarchy in 1955.

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice skipped a meeting of ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in Laos in 2005, sending instead her deputy Robert Zoellick.


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