The defense minister of Laos has rejected a proposal to expand military contacts with the United States. The offer was made Thursday in Vientiane by the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, who was on his first visit to the country.
The Lao defense minister, Major General Duangchay Phichit says his country is not ready to take the kind of first steps other countries in the region have taken or are talking about. Those include allowing American military medical teams to visit and provide services in some communities and allowing military engineers to build schools, clinics, roads and other needed facilities.
That is what the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific suggested. Admiral William Fallon told the minister it is "not good" that U.S. and Lao military forces have had little interaction during the last 30 years and that it is time to change that.
But Minister Duangchay says Laos must first build its own capabilities before it might be able to work with the American military on such projects. He says he would welcome funds to build schools or clinics, but he says he does not want more U.S. troops on Lao soil, because of what he called lingering hostility toward the United States among some Lao people. The minister suggested further diplomacy to find the right time to move forward.
In a VOA interview after the meeting, Admiral Fallon was frank about the results.
"At the end of the day, very little progress, but some. And, that is that he agreed to receive and send on to the other governing leadership here a proposal that I'll send back to actually have a working-level meeting to sit down and go through the range of things we might do," he said. "So it's a start. It's better than nothing. And, we'll get moving."
Laos already sends some officers for training in the United States. The admiral hopes that will increase, and that the working-level talks he hopes for will lead to other forms of cooperation.
"The leadership here is very remote. There's just no relationship between our countries, to speak of," continued Admiral Fallon. "We have an ambassador and a small staff here. She works at it. But the folks here are pretty reclusive, have not been very interested in doing anything with the U.S. And, so, we've had 30-some years since they took power here with virtually nothing going on. So, I made a real strong push to crack that ice, to take us forward in other areas."
Admiral Fallon also thanked the Lao government for its cooperation in the search for the remains of American troops missing from the Vietnam War era. There are four U.S. teams working at sites in Laos. The admiral visited one of them, Wednesday. Minister Duangchay says the government wants to continue that effort, which is a profit-making enterprise for Laos, as well as for Cambodia and Vietnam. But he says Laos does not even have the resources to exchange military attaches with some of its neighbors and, so, is not ready to expand military dealings with the United States.
Another official at the meeting told the story of an incident when Lao villagers attacked an American team with machetes, when the team arrived to search for the remains of missing troops. The official later acknowledged that incident happened 20 years ago.
"It's really, really a challenge," he said. "We've got virtually nothing going on except the recovery of remains. There's an awful strong legacy remaining from war years."
Admiral Fallon told the Lao defense minister the two countries can continue, forever, under the influence of that legacy or the leaders can lead the way toward demonstrating to the people that the two countries can have a different relationship.
Laos was the last stop on Admiral Fallon's week-long visit to Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, officials were more receptive for proposals to increase contacts. The defense minister agreed to allow a U.S. Navy ship to visit and he called for more training of Cambodian military officers in the United States, saying the expansion of Cambodian-American military relations is long overdue.
But Vietnamese leaders took a more cautious approach. The country's defense minister told the admiral Vietnam is not ready to do joint exercises with the U.S. military, not even on search and rescue missions. But Vietnam does want advice on disaster management from the American military and the minister did agree to send the country's top military officer to an American-sponsored regional meeting in November.
The U.S. Pacific commander's trip was designed to promote security in the region by increasing contacts with Southeast Asian countries. He says the more countries know about each other and the more inter-action their militaries have, the less likely they are inclined to have misunderstandings that could lead to conflicts in the future.