U.S. President’s Visit Opens New Era of U.S.-Lao Relations

President Barack Obama’s September 5-8 visit to the Lao PDR opened a new era in the U.S.-Lao relationship.  During his time in Laos, President Obama visited both Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and participated in the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summit.

In Vientiane, President Bounnhang hosted President Obama in an official state visit, which included a welcome ceremony and state lunch at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane.  During the visit, President Bounnhang and President Obama announced the establishment of a new U.S.-Laos Comprehensive Partnership based on common interests and a shared desire to heal the wounds of the past and build a foundation for the future.  The new Comprehensive Partnership 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.

President Obama delivered a speech at the National Cultural Hall highlighting increased U.S.-Lao dialogue and engagement in recent years.  He described the work both countries have done to overcome a painful historical legacy and forge the newly-established Comprehensive Partnership, which will serve as a foundation for the future.  President Obama voiced strong support for Laos’s role in ASEAN, both during and after its Chairmanship year, noting expanded engagement with Southeast Asia is central to the U.S. Rebalance to Asia

President Obama also announced new U.S. assistance to help Laos achieve its development goals.  This year, USAID will launch a new five-year basic education program focused on early grade reading.  The White House 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.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture committed an additional $27 million to continue its school meals program, bringing its total contribution for school meal programs in Laos to nearly $100 million over 10 years.  The Oregon Health and Sciences University will cooperate with the Ministry of Health in a new Lao-American Nutrition Institute, built with U.S. funds that will help prevent malnutrition in the country.

To strengthen people-to-people ties, the United States is increasing 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.

President Obama also highlighted U.S. support for economic development in Laos and opportunities for U.S. companies.  Ahead of his 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 that will leapfrog old technologies.  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.

At the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), an organization that works to ensure people with physical disabilities have access to quality rehabilitation services, President Obama announced the United States has committed $90 million over the next three years to conduct a comprehensive UXO survey of Laos and for continued clearing operations, and will continue to assist UXO victims in coordination with the Centre for Medical Rehabilitation under the Lao Ministry of Health.  These efforts ensure UXO victims have better access to quality rehabilitation services, including orthotics and prosthetics to improve their lives.

In Luang Prabang, President Obama held a Town Hall meeting at Souphanouvong University for Young Southeast Asian Leader Initiative (YSEALI) participants.  The initiative, which he launched in 2013, builds the leadership capabilities of youth in the region and promotes cross-border cooperation to solve regional and global challenges.  President Obama also toured Wat Xieng Thong, a recipient of grants from the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), which symbolizes the United States’ commitment to preserving Laos’ cultural heritage.

Upon returning to Vientiane, President Obama attended a gala dinner hosted by Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith to welcome world leaders attending the ASEAN and East Asia Summits.  During 4th ASEAN-United States of America Summit President Obama launched the ASEAN Connect framework for economic cooperation with ASEAN countries.  He later participated in the 11th East Asia Summit where he met with world leaders to discuss the promotion of peace and prosperity in the region.