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O N L I N E   E D I T I O N
Volume 9, Issue 1   January 1999

Lao and Vietnamese Ministers Speak at Forum

by Andrew Thornley

High level leaders from Laos and Vietnam met with representatives of NGOs educational organizations and business at the office of the Institute of International Education in New York. This is an annual event sponsored by the Forum on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It provides an opportunity for the private sector to meet informally with national leaders in conjunction with their attendance at the UN General Assembly.

Speaking at the September 23d session were Soubanh Srithirath, Minister to the Office of the President of Lao PDR and Nguyen Manh Cam, Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. Both had been given higher government responsibilities since their prior meetings with the Forum.

Soubanh Srithirath

Minister Soubanh credited consistent economic reforms since 1986 for Laos' impressive growth figures (per capita income rising approximately 7 percent from 1991 -1996). However, Laos has suffered as a result of the recent economic crisis in Asia, notably leading to rising inflation and a decline in the value of the currency.

Soubanh highlighted the following issues as being of particular concern to Laos:

  • Poverty eradication: Half of Laos' population is still below the poverty line. Poverty can be addressed by the expansion of market access, development of infrastructure, and the enhancement of social services. He reiterated that humanitarian assistance and NGO participation is most welcome.
  • Drug trafficking: The government is taking "radical" steps to counter the spread of narcotics, including the establishment of a National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision and a counter narcotics office. Such efforts are supported by stricter law enforcement and harsher penalties for drug traffickers.
  • Unexploded ordnance: Two years ago, the UNDP and Unicef joined the Lao government in a campaign aimed at clearing unexploded ordnance. Since then, this effort has received support from other IOs and NGOs which has led to increased recruitment and training of Lao personnel for mine clearing, and dissemination of information about the dangers of unexploded ordnance. Casualties have actually decreased in the last year.
  • Refugees: Approximately 1,300 Lao refugees remain in Thai refugee camps. Soubanh stated that since 1977, the Lao government has welcomed back all refugees returning on a voluntary basis and it is the aim of the government to repatriate remaining refugees as quickly as possible.
  • Political development: Following the convening of the new National Assembly on 21 December 1997 and the election of the new President and appointment of the new Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Lao government is reexamining some articles of the constitution relating to the fundamental rights and duties of citizens.

Finally, Soubanh reminded everyone that 1999 is Visit Laos year. Tourism has been steadily rising throughout the 1990s and currently constitutes the fourth largest source of national income. Hopes are high in Vientiane for a tourism increase next year.

Questions centered on various challenges facing the Lao government, in particular concerning ASEAN membership, education and narcotics control.

Regarding ASEAN membership, Soubanh said that the advantages include extended cooperation both within the region and beyond and the fact that by joining ASEAN, Laos might eventually witness an increased standard of living to equal those of its ASEAN partners. The principal challenge of joining ASEAN is training government officials in the English language - the official language of ASEAN and the language in which ASEAN's approximately 300 meetings per year are conducted. The minister reiterated this point in answer to a question regarding Laos' education needs.

As Chairman of the Lao National Commission for Drug Control, Soubanh expressed confidence that the increasingly accepted solution to the global narcotics problem is cooperation between "supplier" and "consumer" countries. Narcotics production decreased in Laos last year and Laos hopes to achieve the termination of opium and coca cultivation by 2008, a goal promoted by the United Nations.

Nguyen Manh Cam

Minister Cam stated that while Vietnam's GDP growth over the past 10 years has been impressive, averaging at approximately 8 percent, the recent economic crisis hit the country's economy hard since over 70 percent of Vietnam's trade and investment comes from the region. Other problems include poverty, which has been compounded this past year by serious droughts, the poor state of the country's infrastructure, and low overall efficiency in the economy. Agricultural development is currently a priority.

Progress has been made on US-Vietnam economic relations but more is needed. While there are over 400 US companies now operating in Vietnam, the United States is 10th on the list of foreign investors. The minister suggested that the March 10, 1998 waiver of Jackson-Vanik represented an important step in paving the way for bilateral relations, as have the subsequent protocols signed with OPIC, EXIM and TDA. He was extremely hopeful that a trade agreement would be signed by the two countries in the New Year leading to MFN status for Vietnam, and mentioned that discussion of Vietnam's accession into the WTO (which would confer MFN automatically) is proceeding.

Minister Cam also praised the work of the 400-odd international NGOs in Vietnam, of which over 200 are American. He suggested that poverty alleviation and the environment should be priorities for NGOs in Vietnam.

In the question-and-answer session, Minister Cam expanded on Vietnam's goals of industrialization and modernization, stating that the government's aim is to develop the economy fast to absorb technology. The Minister explained that gradual industrialization would leave Vietnam behind and unable to integrate into the regional and global economy.

On China, Minister Cam commented that Vietnam-PRC trade had expanded since normalization, but not as fast as had been hoped due to the competitive nature of their exports.

Finally, Minister Cam reiterated that Vietnam's development requires both a strong economy and political stability: food security is essential for political and social stability, which in turn is essential for economic growth.

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