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NO POLICY FOR LAO
by Alex, LaosFreedom Staff Writer

     The blocking of confirmation of the appointment of the US Ambassador to Lao by Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH) sends a loud and clear message to the US government that the absence of clear policy towards Lao must be put in place. Lao is a small country and relatively unknown in social circle; however, this small country holds more strategic value than what the media may want to admit. During the Vietnam war era, Lao was a buffer zone protecting Thailand against the South ward expansion of China and the burgeoning power of Vietnam from the East and south. Those threats are gone. However, the Lao question presents a new challenge to policy makers throughout the region. The US government, although lacking concrete policy towards this land lock country, should have keener interest especially in face of recent internal struggle in Lao.
     The instability of Lao presents a security concern to the region. The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, as well as other western donors invested heavily into the development of Lao since the mid 1970s. Yet the country remains poor and underdeveloped. The possibility that recent bombing in Lao will contribute to another period of retraction by the oligarchs in Vientiane is real and poses serious concerns to its ASEAN neighbors. Whatever happens in Lao, whether economic or political, concerns other nine ASEAN members as well. Thailand, in particular, is one of the largest investors in Lao. The economic ties between these two countries are tighter than ever despite their political differences. As for the US, the absence of concrete policy towards Lao, in either economic or political front, poses a profound challenge.
The issue of MIA-POW is one of great importance. Data collection and searching missions on MIA-POW should continue. The commercial attache should play more active role in making situation assessment and policy recommendations to the President.
     If the President or the Secretary of State is asked what kind of policy framework does the US has towards Lao? The answer would be "shallow" as Sen. Bob Smith had declared in his opposition to the President's nominee to replace Ms. Chamberlain whose days in Vientiane are now numbered. Lao presents several policy issues to the US. Among them are: narcotics, human rights, economic, foreign debts, environmental destruction, political reform, MIA-POW, intellectual property, treatment of Lao expatriates, etc. The last two terms in office, President Clinton did not formulate any concrete policy towards Lao. Yet during that same time, Lao had become a member of ASEAN; closely aligned itself to Vietnam and China, under the tutelage of some factions, as well as taking a free fall in its failed economic and monetary policies. These failure had, among other factors, culminated into recent political turmoil in Lao. Reformers in Lao are unable to go forward with the reform because no major economic power was willing enough to render technical support to make the transition from socialist economy to the free market. The oligarchs too were unwilling to risk loosing their political gains had decided to pull in the reign.
What will the new US ambassador bring to Lao if he is confirmed by the Senate? If the appointment is nothing more than the changing of the guard and the US Ambassador is no more than a diplomat with an empty portfolio, it is likely that the US mission in Lao will remain ad hoc.
     In this confirmation process, the Lao expatriates living in the US, as well as other western democracies, such as Australia, France and England must also remain alert and active. We must make known our concerns. in this confirmation process, the appointee must pledge that as a representative of the US government he will carry with him the policy of the Administration. That policy must embody the ideals of the American democracy, among them political freedom and the free market are the corner stone for nation building. The fact that the US government is sending its diplomat to man a post in a foreign land precisely sends a message to that foreign country that it is there to protect and advance its interest.
     Where was the voice of the American representative when in recent months the Lao government unilaterally proclaim that marriage among Lao nationals and foreigners must be approved by the local authority in Lao. This new rule runs against the grain of the American ideals espousing freedom of association and the rights to privacy. It adversely affect the rights and privileges of American citizens who wish to marry Lao nationals. Moreover, each year Lao comes up for review whether it should be granted an MFN status. One of the condition under the MFN law is that Lao must allow free emigration of its people. By requiring foreigners---US citizens---to obtain the consent of the local Lao authority, the Lao government obstructs that right of the Lao person to emigrate and also impinges on the right of the US citizen who wishes to marry a Lao national. Outside of the purview of bilateral relations between the US and Lao, this marital obstruction erected by the Lao government also flies at the face of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for it obstruct freedom of association and the right to intermarry among Lao nationals and citizens of another country. This is but one of many example that the US diplomatic corps fail to raise its objections to the Vientiane administration. It will continue to be silent unless the Lao expatriates make known that their rights had been violated.
     If President Clinton's new appointee is to be confirmed, he must pledge to fight for the right of US citizens who come into contact with Lao and its government. Those Lao expatriates who had taken the time and effort to under go the naturalization process to become US citizens, this is a time to become active in the political process of their adopted country. Your raise you hand and swore to participate in the political process of this nation when you became US citizens, remember that? This is the time to be active. The issue is too close to home to be ignored. Call or write to Senator Bob Smith (Rep-NH) or write to Senators from your states.
     Turn now to political reform. Lao receives monetary assistance from the US government every year. We must urge the US government to make all financial assistance to Vientiane contingent on political reform. If the Lao government wants to continue to received aids from the US, it must undertake political reform. Such reform must ultimately aim at moving the country towards a multiparty system and the democratic restoration of Lao. Can we not dare ask the new Clinton appointee directly or via those Senators to carry this goal forward on our behalf if we cannot do it personally?
Developmental projects are of keen interests to many Lao expatriates. Some of the money offered by the US and its allies, as well as other western nations are earmarked for developmental projects. These project requires outside consultation services and technical expertise. The US government must adopt as its standing policy that monetary aid for development projects given by the US must have conditions attached. One of these conditions must be that if Lao expatriates bid for the job, the Lao government must give favorable and serious consideration to their bidding. The rationale for such a policy recommendation lies on the premise that so long as the Lao government depends on foreign experts, having no national interest in Lao, this is not the buildong human capital in the country. By allowing Lao expatriates to participate in the development of Lao, Lao will attract Lao expatriates to return home with technical knowledge and expertise to help reconstruct the country. This national building rationale must also be the cornerstone behind US policy towards Lao in the 21st Century.
     By nature the Ambassador represents his government. In this case, he represents the President of the United States. However, if the Administration has no concrete policy towards the country to which the diplomat was commanded to take post, he is nothing more than a diplomat with no portfolio. Let not the voice of Sen. Bob Smith fell to deft ears. His call for action should especially be louder to the ears of the Lao expatriate community in the US and other western democracies.
     In this new appointment proceeding, it is an opportunity for the Lao expatriates to make known their interests and concerns. We might not get this opportunity again for another four to eight years. If Gore wins the election on November 7, it is likely that the new appointee to Vientiane will remain in that post until the year 2008. If Bush becomes the President, Lao might not have any interest to the Administration, other than the MIA-POW and narcotics issues, thus making the issue nearly moot. The next 60 days are critical. Even a single voice or a single letter to Sen. Bob Smith will make a difference. Come, it is our country, let us speak up for it. Let's tell the Senate that we want our interests protected. The Serb immigrants were active in persuading the US government to maintain watchful eyes on Yugoslavia and they had been successful. The Jewish community were vocal in their support for Israel and their activism was rewarded with favorable policy towards Israel. Did we not see that both Presidential candidates, Gore and Bush, pledge time and again that their will support Israel? The Cuban expatriates had been active in their campaign against communism in Cuba. Their activities are known and every political candidate, be it Presidential, Senatorial or Congressional heed to their demand for concrete policy towards Cuba. There are more than 200,000 Lao expatriates living in the US, can we make known our interests and concerns?