The man heading out to be the U.S. envoy to the small Southeast Asian nation of Laos says he hopes U.S. concerns over the Lao government's human rights record will not overshadow the many areas in which the two countries can work together. VOA's Stephanie Ho spoke with the U.S. ambassador in Washington and has this report.
The new U.S. ambassador to Laos, Ravic Huso, says there are many areas where U.S.-Lao cooperation is good. "One of the most important is the humanitarian effort to achieve the fullest possible accounting of those servicemen and women who were missing in action from the Indochina conflict. Another legacy of the Indochina conflict is the unexploded ordnance that remains in Laos and constitutes a continuing threat to the safety and welfare of the Lao people," he said.
Huso said other areas of cooperation include combatting narcotics, human trafficking and avian flu. He said trade and investment is one area with growth potential. But, he added, Washington and Vientiane do not agree on everything. "We have differences over human rights. We do have some concerns that we've expressed to the Lao, in the areas of human rights and religious freedoms, and in the protection of their ethnic minorities," he said.
Another sticking point has been the area of military cooperation. Nearly one year ago, the Lao defense minister (Major General Duangchay Phichit) rejected a U.S. proposal to expand military contacts between the two countries. The proposal included allowing American military medical teams to provide services in some Lao communities, and allowing U.S. military engineers to build schools, clinics and roads in Laos.
At the time, the Lao official said his country must first build its own capabilities before it can work with the American military. He said he would welcome funds to build schools or clinics. But he added that 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.
When asked about the status of U.S.-Lao military cooperation, Ambassador Huso said the two sides are now in what he described as the "first stages of exploring" what might be in both countries' mutual interests. "We think that there may be some opportunities that the Lao would like to explore. They have recently sent some senior officials to the United States, to become more familiar with the types of opportunities that might exist," he said.
Huso said some areas of potential cooperation are mostly humanitarian, including disaster relief and dealing with bird flu. "We also see the potential for using our programs to send a clear message that we send in all of our military cooperation programs, regarding the importance of a professional military that is subordinate to civilian rule and respectful of human rights," he said.
One issue of particular interest in Laos and in the United States is the case of Vang Pao, a former Lao general who led Hmong tribesmen to fight with the U.S. military against Communist guerillas nearly 40 years ago. Vang Pao, who is now a prominent leader in California's ethnic Hmong community, was formally charged in a federal court in California last month for taking part in a plot to violently overthrow the government of Laos. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The U.S. ambassador refused to comment specifically on the Vang Pao case. But he said, on policy and on principle, the U.S. government is opposed to acts of violence against friendly governments.