Obama in Laos: First US President to visit the Land of a Million Elephants

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This September, Barack Obama became the first President of the United States ever to visit Laos. But what did he get up to while he was there? We’ve been investigating: why was Obama in Laos?

“Today, the eyes of the world are on Laos. And I know that that may be a little unusual, because Laos is a small nation next to larger neighbors and, as a result, too often, the richness of your culture has not been fully appreciated.”

So declared the President, opening his address at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane. And he was certainly right – there have not been many times in history that little old Laos has grabbed the world’s attention. For the most part, this little mountainous country slips beneath the global radar, both its troubles and its triumphs going unnoticed by the community at large. Obama’s visit was an unprecedented chance for the world to get a glimpse of Laos.

The President explored the historic city of Luang Prabang
The President explored the historic city of Luang Prabang

The spectre of war

We’ve established that Obama is the first US President ever to visit Laos, but why?

Laos’s continued communism and America’s devastating role in the war are the principal reasons that US presidents have steered clear of Laos in the past. During the Vietnamese-American War of the 1970s, the USA waged a “secret war” in Laos, dropping over two million tons of bombs on the central plains over the course of just nine years. Two million tons is a lot however you look at it – but to put this in perspective: that’s more bombs than the USA dropped in the entirety of World War II. Obama didn’t attempt to conceal this fact in his speech to the people of Laos:

“Six decades ago, this country fell into civil war.  And as the fighting raged next door in Vietnam, your neighbors and foreign powers, including the United States, intervened here. As a result of that conflict and its aftermath, many people fled or were driven from their homes. At the time, the U.S. government did not acknowledge America’s role. It was a secret war, and for years, the American people did not know.  Even now, many Americans are not fully aware of this chapter in our history, and it’s important that we remember today.”

In addition to acknowledging the USA’s culpability, the President also brought up the issue of the unexploded ordnance that still peppers the landscape in Laos, killing and injuring thousands of rural people every year. In a bid to tackle the problem, he announced that the USA would be doubling the amount of aid it send to help clear bombs from the countryside to $90 million per year – explaining that he believes America has “a moral obligation to help Laos heal”.

Obama in Laos: The Plain of Jars is one of the places worst affected by unexploded ordnance
The Plain of Jars is one of the places worst affected by unexploded ordnance

Promoting education for girls

In addition to discussing the war and its long-lasting effects, Obama announced that the “Let Girls Learn” initiative would be expanding its operations to Laos and Nepal. This charity, which champions the rights of girls and women to equal education, was launched by Michelle Obama in 2015 and already has projects all over the world.

The President also discussed his commitment to protecting the environment, fostering trade, and boosting job creation in Laos – though he did not announce and specific initiatives for the time being. He also recognised the positive effect his visit could have on the tourism industry, and expressed his hope that he would inspire more Americans to consider heading to Laos.

The President explained that he was "not allowed" by the Secret Service to ride an elephant
The President explained that he was “not allowed” by the Secret Service to ride an elephant

Strengthening bonds in Asia Pacific

What Obama’s recent visits to Asia indicate is the growing importance of the Asia Pacific region on the world stage. This is a region with one of the world’s fastest-growing middle classes, some of the world’s best military forces, and over half of the people living in the world today – making it pivotal to the future of global trade, security, and climate change.

Obama’s no fool: the USA needs friendship from nations like Laos – which is why he’s been busy building bridges not just in Laos but in Vietnam, Burma, South Korea, Japan and China too. He has renewed the USA’s partnership with ASEAN, promoted entrepreneurship in Indonesia and Malaysia, forged deeper ties with India, and boosted US exports to Asia Pacific by 50% over his time in office. Above all, Obama has made it clear that the USA will not allow national differences – even serious ones – get in the way of progress for all involved:

“Our two governments will continue to have differences. That’s true with many nations […] Yet even as our governments deal candidly with our differences, I believe, as we have shown from Cuba to Burma to Vietnam, the best way to deliver progress for all of our peoples is by closer cooperation between our countries.”

For these reasons, Obama announced his continued support for the controversial TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade deal, which has yet to be passed by US Congress and has met with some resistance at home.

Finally, despite the conciliatory tone of his visit, Obama made it clear that the USA would remain committed to improving human rights, pushing for democracy, and fighting corruption in Asia.

Obama was introduced to the monks in Luang Prabang
Obama was introduced to the monks in Luang Prabang

Has POTUS inspired you to learn more about Laos? Get in touch with one of our experts to start planning your trip today!

Barack Obama’s full speech to the Lao Cultural Hall in Vientiane can be found here.

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