September 29th, 2016 | Published in Laos
By Ambassador Daniel Clune
President Obama’s historic trip to Laos is a fitting end to my final weeks as the U.S. Ambassador to Laos and a perfect beginning to a new era of U.S.-Lao relations, one that lets us heal the wounds of the past and build a foundation for the future.
After years of increased dialogue between our two nations, I was proud when President Bounnhang and President Obama announced the establishment of a U.S.-Laos Comprehensive Partnership, which will create mechanisms for cooperation in areas including political and diplomatic relations, trade and economic ties, education and training, environment and health, war legacy issues, security, human rights, and people-to-people ties.
Since I arrived in Laos in 2013, I have been committed to helping make Laos safe from unexploded ordnance (UXO). We have increased our funding for UXO assistance from 9 million dollars in 2013, to 30 million dollars in the coming year. President Obama announced the United States has committed $90 million over the next three years to conduct a comprehensive UXO survey, for continued clearing operations, and to provide victims assistance and risk education.
This year, we will launch a new five-year basic education program focused on early grade reading. The White House also selected Laos as a Challenge Fund country for Let Girls Learn, which works to address the many challenges adolescent girls face to attend and complete school so they can reach their fullest potential. As the proud father of three daughters, it is important to me that our daughters receive the same opportunities as our sons.
I am also grateful that the U.S. Department of Agriculture committed an additional $27 million to continue its school meals program. My wife Judy and I have visited many of the schools that benefit from this program and we have seen first-hand the impact it has on student attendance. To further improve nutrition, we have established a partnership with the Oregon Health and Sciences University, the Ministry of Health and the U.S. government to create a new Lao-American Nutrition Institute.
To strengthen people-to-people ties, the United States is expanding its English teaching programs by bringing more teachers and language experts to Laos, and sending grade school and university officials to the United States to improve their English-language skills.
Over the last 3 years I have worked to support economic development in Laos and opportunities for U.S. companies.
Ahead of President Obama’s arrival, GE announced it will open an office in Vientiane, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Electricité Du Laos, Laos’ state electric utility, to upgrade its technical training center and conduct a detailed technical assessment that will help Laos make investments in a smarter grid. Microsoft has partnered with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications to help thousands of Lao students and entrepreneurs access cloud-based training courses on subjects ranging from technology and engineering to accounting and English language at no cost. The U.S. Trade and Development Agency is funding a feasibility study for a 20 megawatt solar project in Laos, which will be the first, large-scale, non-hydro renewable energy project in Laos and support the country’s goals of diversifying its energy mix.
Lao and Hmong Americans have played an important role in building this partnership. As President Obama noted in his speech in Vientiane, “From the anguish of war, there came an unlikely bond between our two peoples. Today, the United States is home to many proud Laotian Americans. Many have made a hard journey through refugee camps and relocation, building new lives in a new country…Our nations are connected not just by policies, but also by people.” He went on to highlight three Lao-Americans, whose stories embody the deep and abiding ties between the United States and Laos: John Douangdara who joined the military and ultimately gave his life for our nation; Channapha Khamvongsa who founded a non-profit organization dedicated to UXO removal in Laos; and Stacey Phengvath, Foreign Service Specialist working in my office at the U.S Embassy in Vientiane.
I am heartened by the extraordinary progress we have made together. I have been most fortunate to have the opportunity to represent the United States in Laos, and I want to thank the Lao people, both those in the United States and in Laos, for their warm hospitality and support. During our time in Laos, my wife and I have visited all 18 provinces in Laos, and in each of them, we have been impressed by the beauty of the countryside, the beauty of Lao culture, but, must importantly, by the beauty and the warmth of the Lao people.