Laos: Simply Beautiful

Ambassador H.E. Thongphachanh Sonnasinh

Laos exudes confidence for a brighter future

For much of its history, since gaining independence from France in 1953, Laos was embroiled in a devastating civil war that pitted the Royalists against Pathet Lao communist forces. It was only in 1975, after the Pathet Lao routed the Royalists and established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic that peace and relative prosperity returned to the country. In an exclusive interview with The Times, H.E.Thongphachanh Sonnasinh, the Ambassador of Laos to Kuwait, recalls the horrors of that war while expressing his optimism about prospects and hopes of a brighter future for his country and people. The ambassador began with a brief about his career, “I am not a career diplomat. I had been working for over twenty years as an economic planner in Vientiane, the capital, when I was assigned as ambassador to the Benelux countries of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.

After seven years in Brussels, I returned to Laos before taking up my current posting as the first-ever ambassador of Laos to Kuwait. So this is my second diplomatic assignment.” The quiet demeanor of the ambassador belies the strong emotions he feels and expresses when speaking about his country and the ordeal this small nation of 6.5 million people suffered during the decade long civil war.

“Laos has the painful distinction of being the most bombed country per capita in the world,” said the ambassador. A fact borne out by statistics: During the period from 1964 to 1973, Laos was hit by an average of one B52 plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day. The total number of bombs dropped on Laos by U.S. bombers exceeded that dropped during the entire Second World War. And, of the approximately 260 million ordnances that landed on Laos, nearly a third failed to explode creating a legacy that continues to extract its deadly toll to this day. “As a nation that is just emerging on the diplomatic scene, Laos has yet a lot to learn about integrating into the international diplomatic community. We have only about two dozen embassies around the world.

The fact that we have the only embassy in the Middle-East in Kuwait, and Kuwait’s envoy in Laos, H.E. Nabeel Rashid Al- Dikheel, is the first resident Arab ambassador in my country, is largely due to the concerted efforts of both governments, based on the initiative by former Prime Minister of Kuwait, Sheikh Naser Al Mohammed Al Sabah, during his historic visit to Laos in 2008.” Following the visit of Sheikh Nasser, and the corresponding visit by the Prime Minister of Laos in 2009, several agreements and documents of cooperation were signed between the two governments and respective Chambers of Commerce.

Agreements on cooperation in trade, economy, technology and investment, as well as memoranda of understanding between the ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Civil Aviation, were also signed during the visit. “We continue to examine various ways and means by which opportunities in different domains that exist in both countries can be tapped to our mutual benefit. The embassy also serves as a window to view what should be done and could be done to further enhance relations and strengthen cooperation between the two countries, as well as between GCC and ASEAN, the grouping of Southeast Asian nations.”

Detailing some specific challenges facing trade and export of goods from Laos, the ambassador said, “Laos, until very recently, had an economy that relied mainly on subsistence agriculture; a plus-point to this was that the vagaries of economic upheavals affecting rest of the global economy did not have any discernable impact on our country. The downside was that the economy was stagnant, development was limited and exports were almost negligible. Being a land-locked country we have to rely on ports in Thailand or Vietnam for any shipments to the outside world. However, since joining ASEAN in 1997, Laos is slowly transforming from a landlocked to land-link country that leverages its borders with China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to facilitate trans-border trade as well as trade with other ASEAN members and rest of the world.”

“During the last decade, several hydro-electric projects installed on Build – Operate – Transfer basis and with Public Private Partnership, have led to the country having a surplus of energy, 90 percent of which is now exported to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Similarly, Laos now has a fledgling garment industry that exports to world markets and mineral resources that allow it to profitably sell about 160,000 tons of copper and 100,000 ounces gold annually. In addition to copper and gold, plans are afoot to attract foreign investment to develop the substantial deposits of coal, bauxite, tin and other valuable metals.” “Tourism is another fast growing industry in the country. The official tourism slogan of ‘Simply Beautiful’ has resonated with tourists who find the relaxed style of living and elements of the ‘original Asia’ that has been lost elsewhere in Asia, very appealing.

From less than 100,000 international visitors in 1990, to nearly 2 million visitors in 2010, tourism in Laos has increased substantially, mainly through promotion of ecotourism, cultural and nature tourism. Tourists are attracted to places like Wat Phu, the ancient Khmer temple complex and the Buddhist culture and colonial architecture in Luang Prabang, as well as the pristine beauty of the Four Thousand Islands and the Plain of Jars region. However, much more remains to be done in order to make Laos an attractive tourism option for international travelers, including building better hotels and other tourism infrastructure.”

Regarding funding by Kuwait for projects in Laos, the ambassador clarified that the Kuwait Fund for Economic Development has funded a project in the north of Laos for the extension of electrical transmission line, and feasibility studies on an irrigation project close to the capital were now completed and in the negotiation phase. “We do not export any significant quantities of food products because of limited production and the lack of processing, packaging and transporting facilities needed to ensure products meet international standards. Moreover, we need to train our human resources in order to qualify them and equip them with the skill sets needed to make Laotian products competitive on the global market place.

Laos is developing at a steady pace and we are confident of generating income needed to support the economy from our own resources, what we lack is the requisite trained and qualified manpower and that is what we need to rectify urgently.” “Laos has enjoyed cordial relations with Kuwait and we are looking forward to further strengthening cooperation and boosting bilateral trade on a government level, and more people to people interaction through cultural and educational exchanges on the individual level, concluded ambassador Sonnasinh.