Our neighbour Laos: No longer the missing link

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Vientiane's recent decision to allow Laotian students to study for bachelor degrees in the Thai language represents a new benchmark of Thai-Lao relations.

For decades, this has been an off-area for ties across the Mekong. Until recently, students could study only for masters and post graduate degrees with English language instruction in Thai universities, when scholarships were available.

Beyond the Thai-Lao context, the change of heart manifests the growing pragmatism of the new Lao leadership, which has the vision to transform the land-locked country to become a fully developed land-linked hub in continental Southeast Asia - linking Southern China to the Gulf of Thailand.

With several infrastructure projects in the pipeline under Asean Connectivity, as well as the ongoing Kunming-Vientiane high speed train, Laos is linking its north with southern China and south with Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, as part of the network of regional connectivity. To prepare for the future, the government has dispatched its best students overseas for education and training. The Lao Communist Party, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is also recruiting bright students to boost its credentials and relevancy.

According to the World Bank, Laos had the second highest economic performance after China last year with an average economic growth of 7.5 per cent. Such impressive growth - unprecedented in its history - was the result of economic reform and overall efforts to integrate with Asean's economy. In the next five years, Laos also hopes to graduate from the list of least developed countries and is also hopeful of joining the World Trade Organisation.

With a new found confidence, the Lao leadership is becoming more outward looking and engaging, especially with neighbouring countries. Since joining Asean in 1997, Laos' overall relations with China, Vietnam and Thailand, have intensified with strong economic ties. Except for Cambodia and Burma, these three neighbours pursue different patterns of political and economic relations, which has enabled Laos to maintain its overall equilibrium.

Lao-China relations improved dramatically in the 1980's and more steadily afterward, as China's presence in the past 6 years has increased by leaps and bounds with huge investment in infrastructure projects. For instance, in Northern Laos, China's economic and demographic presence in Boten is quite impressive. Although China was considered a late comer in comparison with Vietnam, its larger and high-impact investment and assistant schemes including all round cooperation, have all but overwhelmed Vietnam's long-held dominance. Of late, China has also boosted the defence capacity of the Lao armed forces, delivering new military hardware and training. Diplomats frequenting the northern route linking Luang Prabang and border towns in China, have witnessed long lines of military trucks for delivery to Laos.

Truth be told, as a land-locked nation with over six million population, Laos is extremely sensitive to foreign influence. Any tilt towards any country would be addressed quite readily by party leaders. At the National Assembly meeting at the end of last year, the sudden resignation of prime minister Bouasone Bouphavanh was a good case in point. Officially, family problems were cited as the main reason - but diplomatic insiders in Vientiane held different views. They said disagreement over the scope of China's role and economic influence in the country was one of the major factors.

Less controversial this time around were Thai-Lao ties. They have improved tremendously in the past two years due to the repatriation of Hmong refugees inside Thailand, which remained the thorn in the side for the past three decades. This chapter of bad history has finally been overcome. After the controversial repatriation at the end of 2009, Thailand bore the brunt of foreign criticism for pushing back the refugees against international pressure, especially from the US. Albeit despite repeated reports of irregularities and mistreatment, overall Thailand's actions have been vindicated. Both sides are now working closely and discreetly to wrap up their long acrimonious affairs. UN agencies and third resettlement countries are more collaborative now that the issue is no longer on the political radar.

Following the January death of General Vang Pao, the Hmong resistance leader, Laotian leaders, who long fought against him and his Hmong resistance forces, have gradually opened up to overseas Hmong communities, those living in the US in particular, by inviting them to return to their homeland. The government also targets well-to-do Hmong investors.

From December 19 last year, Thailand and Laos began celebrating the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. Numerous activities are planned, including commemorative stamps and books, joint cultural exhibitions, performance and sports. There is new and ongoing construction of railways, roads, hospitals and public utilities. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has maintained the most extensive assistance programs inside Laos covering much-needed fields such as education, agriculture, medicine and human resource developments.

Thailand has been very careful in nurturing its new found trust with Laos. Border authorities were given special instructions to prevent trafficking in people, especially along Nakhon Phanom and Nong Khai provinces. Due to the rising cost of living, more and more Laotians have been attracted to work across the border for higher wages. Thai movie stars and singers are being warned to observe and behave within Lao cultural norms and values. Thai tourists flocking to Laos, 1.3 million last year, have a better appreciation of Lao traditions than before. At this juncture, Thailand cannot afford to have any discord with Laos while the Thai-Cambodian ties continue to face uncertainty.

Laos is planning for the upcoming super event as host of the 9th Asia Europe Meeting in November 2012 - the country's biggest diplomatic showcase since its independence. In 2005, Vientiane hosted for the first time the Asean summit. Unbeknown to the public and media, also in 2005, Laos was the first country to offer hosting of the much heralded East Asia Summit, but it was overlooked. However, the possibility of having at least three dozen leaders from Asia and Europe converge on Vientiane

rendered a strong sense of national pride that Laos would be the centre of global attention - no longer merely the land of laid-back people.


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