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Laos slips under the radar

China and Vietnam are the twin planks that keep Laos afloat.

Barely a month goes by without leadership delegations from Beijing and Hanoi descending on Vientiane, as they both already have done this month.

That these visits are invariably fruitful is no surprise. Indeed, it is hard for anyone to visit Laos without falling in love with the place.

The problem comes when you stay longer and try to conduct business or other activities that demand concerted effort and a deadline.

For, by and large, Laotians reject the obsessive urge to seek material gain as fast as possible that drives modern life across the rest of the region.

It appears to have always been that way. And many hope it always will be.

Back in 1960, however, United States President Dwight Eisenhower did not think so and he urged his successor John Kennedy to focus on Laos, which, he claimed, was “the cork in the bottle” of Southeast Asia.

More disastrously misguided advice is hard to imagine, and it caused Kennedy tremendous heartache.

For rather than a cork, Laos is more like the dregs at the base of an old bottle of uncertain vintage that, for safety’s sake, is best left undisturbed.

Back then, though, Kennedy did not know this and was naturally perturbed, so he asked his man in Vientiane for a reading of the situation and of the folks there.

Ambassador Winthrop Brown cabled back: “They’re charming, indolent, enchanting people. They’re just not very vigorous.”

Hardly revelatory, but then Brown did add that Phoumi Nosavan, the right-wing military thug backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency, was totally useless and lacked battlefield experience.

Two months later, upon receiving another similar cable, Kennedy fumed: “General Phoumi is a total shit!”

He was. But he was also very proficient at setting up gambling and opium dens to make up a shortfall in revenue after Kennedy belatedly cut off aid in February 1962.

The income from his illicit activities only bought Phoumi a short respite and three years later he was forced into exile in Thailand, where he died in 1985, as unremembered as most Lao leaders – even the present ones.

We all know Prime Minister Hun Sen. And already his relatively new counterparts like Malaysia’s Najib Razak, Myanmar’s Thein Sein and Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra are well known.

But General Choummaly Sayasone? Who he?

Well, as his official biography reveals, Comrade Choummaly joined the revolution in 1954 and rose through the military ranks to become head of the armed forces.

Then, after helping his fellow Pathet Lao Communists seize power in 1975, he continued rising and became head of the party and state president in 2006.

He’s now been in charge for nearly six years, yet hardly anyone, except his colleagues in Beijing and Hanoi, recognise him.

That may explain why those regular and highly significant visits also go almost unnoticed.

Earlier this month, for instance, a Chinese delegation led by former Shanxi governor Yuan Chunqing came to reaffirm major development assistance, like the high-speed rail project to link southern China with Vientiane.

And this year, Soochow University, China’s oldest private varsity, will open the country’s first overseas campus in Laos costing $25 million.

Not to be outdone, Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang arrived in Vientiane soon after to celebrate bilateral solidarity and endorse the “special relationship” between the two countries.

Last month, Vietnam’s Long Thanh Golf Investment & Trade Co agreed to build Laos’s first special economic zone, which will boost Hanoi’s current $3.6 billion investments in its neighbour.

China remains Laos’s largest investor, but Vietnam is its second largest – and its prime political overlord. The Americans are nowhere in sight.

Indeed, astonishingly, Laos has never hosted a cabinet-level official from the US. Although, when you read back over those ambassadorial cables, it is hardly unexpected.

The Lao people may be indolent and lack vigour, but they’re not dumb.

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