VIENTIANE — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped in Laos Wednesday for talks ahead of this week's meeting of South East Asian foreign ministers. U.S. and Lao officials discussed environmental protections for the Lower Mekong Delta and lingering issues of unexploded ordinance from the Vietnam War.
In talks with Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Secretary Clinton discussed Laos' coming entry to the World Trade Organization and continuing U.S. assistance to safely dispose of unexploded ordinance from the Vietnam War.
"We traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding new ways to partner for the future," Clinton said.
Addressing legacies, Secretary Clinton visited a partially U.S.-funded, non-profit orthotic and prosthetic cooperative that helps those injured by leftover cluster munitions dropped during more than 580,000 U.S. bombing runs between 1964 and 1975.
Secretary Clinton says the United States has helped clear more than one million bombs from 23,000 hectares of Lao land that can now be used for farming or development.
"I hope others in the international community will join us in our efforts to bring this legacy of the Vietnam War era to a safe end and give the people, particularly the children of this nation the opportunity to live their lives safe from these unexploded bombs," Clinton said.
During her visit, the two governments agreed to improve efforts to account for military personnel still missing from the Vietnam War. U.S. officials want greater access, having investigated sites relating to fewer than 600 missing Americans since the mid-1980s.
Secretary Clinton expressed appreciation for the government's re-integration of ethnic Hmong refugees who returned from Thailand in 2009. In a written statement, the Lao government thanked the United States for providing humanitarian assistance for those families as well as for people in communities surrounding Hmong villages.
The secretary and foreign minister discussed environmental protection and investment in the Lower Mekong River Delta, with the Lao government again promising to suspend work on the controversial Xaya Buri dam in response to concerns by its neighbors.
Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong told Secretary Clinton that his government will invite international experts to study the dam's environmental and social impact before deciding whether to proceed. A senior State Department official says that is an important development for all the people of the Lower Mekong, and Washington welcomes this "responsible decision."
The visit reflects broadening bilateral cooperation between the countries after decades of relative isolation. Foreign Minister Thongloun's trip to the United States in 2010 was the first by a senior Lao official in 35 years. This visit to Laos is the first by a U.S. secretary of state since John Foster Dulles in 1955.