29th June 2016 Vientiane, Laos
12 Months as Ambassador in Laos – Notes on an Ever Expanding Friendship
Birthdays and anniversaries always make me think of the famous quote from Geoffrey Chaucer – like Shakespeare one of the giants of English literature – that “time and tide wait for no man.” And no woman either. It was a thought firmly in mind when we at the British Embassy hosted a 90th Birthday Party recently for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.
Sometimes, I find it hard to believe I’ve already been a diplomat for 30 years. But it pales into insignificance compared with Her Majesty’s 64 years of unwavering public service. As with many other British citizens, the Queen’s dedication to duty has been an inspiration throughout my life.
Another more personal anniversary was also in my thoughts as I delivered welcoming remarks for the many guests at our Queen’s Birthday Party on 8 June. It was a year to the day since I had assumed the post of UK Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). In my view, it’s been an extraordinary year in UK/Laos relations characterised by an ever expanding friendship, as a few highlights show:
60 years of diplomatic relations and a new embassy
Three events in particular have reinforced closer ties. The first ever formal Lao-UK political consultations, held in November 2015, underscored our support for Laos assuming the Chair of ASEAN and its ambition to support greater regional integration.
The consultations were followed by our celebration of 60 years of UK/Laos diplomatic relations. The then Foreign Minister and now Prime Minister of the Lao PDR, Thongloun Sisoulith, was our Guest of Honour. At the same event, Saleumxay Kommasith, now Foreign Minister, gave a powerful and touching presentation to highlight the value that Laos has attached to six decades of unbroken friendship with the UK. He said the Lao Government was delighted at the reopening of our Embassy in Vientiane in 2012.
So were we. Indeed, at a ceremony to inaugurate a new state-of-the art British Embassy building in February this year, Sir Simon McDonald , the Head of our Diplomatic Service, memorably announced that “the Brits are back.” I’ll second that.
Crafting a “Creative Partnership” around…
Our renewed and long term commitment lies at the heart of the Creative Partnership strategy with the government and people of the Lao PDR. This has been taking shape over the last year. It’s “Creative” because it’s about looking to the future, encouraging innovative approaches and making the best use of available resources. It’s a “Partnership” because our emerging priorities reflect mutual consultation and shared interests with the Lao Government.
At the top of the list is education, which is why I was so delighted to welcome Madame Sengduane Lachantaboun, Minister for Education and Sports, as the Chief Guest for our recent Queen’s Birthday Party. Lao leaders have asked the Embassy in particular to provide support on English language training (ELT). With British Council assistance, we have developed a focused set of recommendations in this area, including a proposal to help the Lao Government create an ELT national framework for the first time.
We are also pushing ahead with promoting university-to-university links. An exciting recent development is the signing of an ambitious agreement between Aston University and the National University of Laos to cooperate widely, including on a potential joint degree programme. In addition, we held the UK’s first ever universities fair in Vientiane last November. And this year, we will send an unprecedented 11 Chevening Scholars for postgraduate study in the UK.
Another cornerstone of the Creative Partnership is promoting bilateral trade. Only launched a few months ago, the British Business Group already has around 50 members, from start-ups to global players. Paul Simcock and his colleagues on the new BBG board deserve real credit for this rapid progress.
Significant UK-related business advances over the past year include Prudential, a leading international life insurance business, opening for business in Laos. It’s great to have “The Man from the Pru” here at last! Meanwhile, I witnessed the opening of a magnificent new Jaguar Landrover showroom in Vientiane – a testament to Britain’s manufacturing and engineering strengths. And Whessoe, a company with roots in the UK and enjoying growing success in the hydropower sector, will open a major new workshop in the capital that will offer vocational training to its Lao workers.
The Embassy team and I will continue our efforts to encourage more UK-linked companies and investors to enter the Lao market. So, if you’d like to know more, just drop us a line!
But our mission here isn’t only to help UK business to build market share. It’s also to help build the market itself. The Lao Government has acknowledged that strengthening the business environment is a policy priority. And I want to record our strong support for the new Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith’s statements on the importance of tackling corruption as a necessary step to boosting economic growth.
Working with our Japanese colleagues, we are engaging closely with the Minister for Commerce and Industry, Madame Khemmani Pholsena, on what constructive steps we might take to help Laos develop the institutional and regulatory capacity it needs in different economic sectors. We have also supported the successful efforts by the Ministry of Finance and Bank of Laos this year to improve the country’s anti-money laundering capabilities.
We have other governance priorities as well. We are about to provide technical assistance to the Lao National Assembly (a subject I will focus on in a future blog). Ww will also help the Lao authorities combat the illegal wildlife trade by funding new work in this sector by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has been active in Lao PDR since 1994.
… and Cultural Links
Of course, our Creative Partnership isn’t just about the serious stuff. It is also about building friendships between the peoples of our two countries. And on this we have a great story to tell, too. Over the last year, the Embassy team and various partners have organised a GREAT British culture day; a very lively party to launch the new Embassy building; consular receptions for the British community; several sponsored events to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death; and a well attended British film night!
We have also almost doubled our Facebook followers over the last year, many of them enthusiastic commentators on our public outreach initiatives. If you’d like to share ideas on what else we can do to promote people-to-people links and, even better, would like to work with us on potentially translating some of the ideas into action, we’d love to hear from you!
And ever more Creative!
Let me close this blog with a vignette that neatly embodies the spirit of an ever expanding UK/Laos friendship. Earlier this year, the Lao Post Office adopted the drawing of a resident British artist, Janice Wollen, as the design for a postage stamp. I understand it is the first time that a foreign design has featured on a Lao PDR stamp. It shows two schoolgirls from different eras, celebrating Laos’ progress on women’s rights and education; areas that we support under the Creative Partnership.
The Lao Post Office then kindly offered to donate a special framed print of the stamp – appropriately the 90th issue! – to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday. At the Queen’s Birthday Party, and on Her Majesty’s behalf, I gratefully received this special gift from the Director of the Lao Post Office. I also congratulated Jan on a notable achievement. The framed print has now been forwarded to Buckingham Palace to be added to the Royal Philatelic Collection. This was indeed a special moment in our bilateral relations.
Looking to the next year and beyond, we will be working hard with our friends and partners to ensure there will be many more such moments.