Chiangrai Times –United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to become the first top US diplomat to visit Laos in 57 years, the US State Department has announced.
Ms Clinton was officially invited to Laos by counterpart Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in 2010 when he made the first visit by a top Laotian official to Washington since Soviet-backed communist rebels swept to power and replaced the monarchy there in 1975.
US relations with Laos, while never severed, were long tense, in part over its campaign against the Hmong hill people who assisted US forces during the Vietnam War, along with uncertainties over American troops missing in action.
But the United States established normal trade ties with Laos in 2004 and has recently looked at ways to help clean up abandoned ordnance that continues to take a heavy civilian toll.
US forces dropped millions of bombs on the country to cut off North Vietnam supply lines, which according to a 2010 survey have killed or injured some 50,000 people in Laos.
The Laos stop forms part of an Asian swing that will also take in Japan, Mongolia and Vietnam ahead of talks in Cambodia with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and regional powers including China.
Observers say Ms Clinton’s brief talks in Laos are likely to focus on the US administration’s Lower Mekong Initiative as well as efforts to fight drug trafficking.
The talks could also focus on Laos’s imminent entry to the World Trade Organization.
In May, Laos said it had postponed construction of a controversial dam on the Mekong, dismissing fears the work was going ahead despite growing regional and international opposition.
The $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam is slated to be the first of 11 big dams along the main stem of the 4,600 kilometre Mekong River, which passes through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Laos is one of the poorest nations in the world, with just 6.5 million people, and sees hydropower as vital to its potential future as the “battery of Southeast Asia,” selling electricity to its more industrialised neighbours.
But activists say the dam projects could spell disaster for the roughly 60 million people who depend on the Mekong waterway – the world’s largest inland fishery.
President Barack Obama’s administration launched the Lower Mekong Initiative in hopes of supporting the environment, health and education in the populous region as part of a renewed effort to build relations with Southeast Asia.
Ms Clinton’s tour will also visit France, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt and Israel after departing Washington on July 5.